Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941)

Older than Evelyn Waugh by a couple of decades, Virginia Woolf’s treatment of a similar social milieu to that of Waugh is markedly different. He wrote of a world in a state of constant transition, whereas her work is an elegy as it seems to lifestyles that seemed to slip away almost by accident.

Her principle theme is time, its relentless passing, and the changes it brings in people and in relationships, while attitudes and emotions continue to endure. I have a memory of a book in which she writes how ‘Tuesday follows Monday; Wednesday, Tuesday’, a memory that stuck in my mind for more than forty years until I thought to check it before writing this, and found that in fact she had written ‘After Monday comes Tuesday, and Wednesday follows’. The cycle is relentless, our position in it akin to the not quite still but nevertheless constant centre of a moving world.

Those lines came from ‘The Waves’, to my mind a far more effective use of personal narration that Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in ‘Ulysses’. Virginia Woolf deals with six friends, moving from childhood to age, some dropping away, speaking initially in sentences that capture the wonder of new experience – ‘When the smoke rises, sleep curls off the roof like a mist.,’ said Louis, supposedly based on T S Eliot. The book ends in a long meditation by the survivor, Bernard, about life constantly renewing itself, despite the constant presence of death – ‘A redness gathers on the roses, even on the pale rose that hangs by the bedroom window. A bird chirps. Cottagers light their early candles. Yes, this is the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.’

There was a seventh in the group, who does not speak, but whom they all react to in different ways, all of them in love with him in different ways, Percival, who died young, the name suggesting one of Arthur’s perfect knights. He died in India, and the emotions of the six at his departure, and then at news of his death, provide a sustained account of memory and how it works.

I found the book fascinating when I was young. Though now I suspect I would find it lacking in substance, the prose still resounds beautifully if one tries to read it aloud. Not only through the language, but through the fascination her characters evince for the life they share, she creates memorable images, both physical scenes and mental reactions. David Cecil indeed, in talking about the contrast between the great Victorian novelists and the moderns, talks about the dazzling effects she created through language, though he suggests there was little more to her, whereas the great Victorians dazzled linguistically and also did much more.

Certainly Virginia Woolf  remains one of the great modern stylists. Her work was also experimental, dealing in ‘Orlando’ for instance with an aristocrat who lived for several centuries, changing from man to woman, from adventurer to poet. In ‘Mrs Dalloway’ she covered just a single day, but ranged through the lives of several characters to convey the complexities of the life and loves of a society lady. And ‘To the Lighthouse’ covered a family holiday in Cornwall in the days when a range of guest could be entertained, followed by a rapid movement through the years that followed, through to the remnants of the group gathering again in Cornwall, trying to fix in their minds what the holiday so long ago had meant.

The second section of that book, called ‘Time Passes’ is a tour de force, its first section ending ‘One by one the lamps were all extinguished, except that Mr Carmichael, who liked to lie awake a little reading Virgil, kept his candle burning rather longer than the rest’. And then the second section sweeps you up – ‘So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a down-pouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in a keyholes and crevices, strole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallow up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers’.

Mr Carmichael puts out his candle at the end of that section, and the third begins, ‘But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens’. At the end of that section Mrs Ramsay, the hostess who has dominated the first part of the book, dies, and then the house is left empty, until in the third part those who remain return to revive and renew the past. In between time has passed ruthlessly in the second part, the eldest Ramsay child marrying and dying in childbirth, the First World War starting and the eldest Ramsay boy dying amongst twenty or thirty young men ‘blown up in France’.

Virginia Woolf belonged to what is termed the Bloomsbury Circle, which contributed immensely to life as well as letters in the period between the wars. Its most famous member was perhaps John Maynard Keynes, who established the economic order that dominated the world until the Chicago School took over. Others included Lytton Strachey, who exploded the myth of Victorian decorum with his mocking biographies in ‘Eminent Victorians’ and the comparatively solid and dependable Leonard Woolf, who kept Virginia going for many years, despite fits of depression, until she finally drowned herself in 1941.

Bloomsbury became quite a cult in the third quarter of the last century, with lots of biographies of its worthies, but even as this was happening its influence was diminishing. The social revolution that Bloomsbury had ushered in was seen as passé, and the more solid virtues of the Victorian Age seemed comparatively admirable.

Perhaps one measure of Bloomsbury’s success is that we have forgotten what a great leap forward they took, in terms of social and sexual liberation, and particularly the position of women. Perhaps in the end, beautiful as Virginia Woolf’s novels are, they are less memorable than her essay on women and fiction, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. In describing a fictional sister of Shakespeare, who could not live the creative life, given the demeaning demands made on her sex, Virginia Woolf talks of the revolution in expectations of women that the Victorian Age had made possible.

In passing almost it seems she registered there the impact of developments in that period on the liberty she herself enjoyed, to create and innovate. In truth, it would seem, ‘After Monday comes Tuesday, and Wednesday follows’. The cycle is relentless, as individuals benefit from progress but hark back to the charms also of the past.