1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 32, 33, 34, 35 & 36: Virginia Woolf (An Author Study)

Academic Prose: A Room Of One’s Own & Three Guineas

A Room Of One’s Own

Woolf’s academic prose serves as a potent, precise, sharp and exact assault on the patriarchal, nationalist, and capitalist traditions. In A Room Of One’s Own, she speaks to an audience of female university students about women in fiction, women that is, who write fiction, not women who are found within fiction (for such women are romanticised, they “dominate” the lives of heroes who idealize them and treated with the utmost “importance“, whereas a woman in all practicality “was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring on her”). The list seems small though, and that is because of the limitations the patriarchal/capitalist structure placed on them. Without an income, without privacy and without time, there is no room to create. Hence a room of one’s own. A room of one’s own, that is, with an allowance, which offers a capital and time. Woolf imagines sister to Shakespeare, one who is as talented, as creative, and as brilliant, but has not the means or the avenue to explore and develop such skills. What happens is a feeling of disenfranchisement, of discouragement, and emptiness that leads to suicide (a hypothesis not entirely polemic in nature considering how Woolf’s life ended). Yes, Shakespeare’s sister “dashed her brains out on the moor and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift put her to”. Shakespeare’s sister would have had no history to follow, not context to use for a spring board. For, as Woolf writes, “…masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of people…” and Shakespeare’s sister would have had nothing to build onto, to build from, since she was one of the many women who had been “sitting indoors all these millions of years”. Such is the “effect of tradition”, the “effect of poverty” on the mind. Indeed, women we locked up (indoors) and locked out (from education, from libraries, from learning) as Woolf articulately points out, but optimistically tells the patriarch:“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Truth, as Woolf says, is to be had by laying together many varieties of error”, but with no common resource for women to pull from, talented female writers had only those errors immediate to them from which to draw, and no the history of errors, certainly not the plethora of infinite errors men had to draw from! Patriarchy was only one stumbling block, capitalism was as well, for as Woolf notes, “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things.” Nationalism didn’t help much (“romance was killed” with the first shots of WWI), and as Woolf sardonically notes (and with great foresight!) that the “fascist poem, one may fear, will be a horrid little abortion such as one sees in a glass jar in the museum of some county town. Such monsters never live long” (lol). At times Woolf sounds like Kathrina of The Taming of the Shrew (“we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex.”), others she articulates the belittling view of the patriarchy (“a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to see it done at all.”), and notes that it “is strange what a difference a tail makes” (lmao). While we all know how pessimistic (or rather, realistic) Woolf was in opting for suicide, and while she does employ (or rather borrow) some dysphemisms to detail the plight of the fairer sex (“Women live like bats, or owls, labour like beasts and die like worms.”), she does ultimately conclude with some uplifting words: “…and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”

 

And a suggestion from Woolf to all aspiring female writers: “Fiction must stick to the facts!”

Three Guineas

Three Guineas is perhaps not as well crafted as A Room Of One’s Own (I could honestly re-read that one fifty times and will sooner re-read that than anything by Shakespeare, whose ass Woolf seems to kiss most tenderly and frequently throughout all of her work), it is still a clever, cynical, precise volley against all things evil in this world (capitalism, patriarchy and nationalism: the sooner we discard all, the better this world will be!). In it Woolf lays out the foundation of many feminist concepts: equal work for equal pay, the concept or free labour and its value being equal to that of the breadwinner and therefore makes the wife entitled to half of his salary, she questions the sale of the mind and suggest (perhaps polemically) that it is no different than selling one’s body. She notes how women in sport, with no trophies or salaries to play for, still play for sport, for love of the game, for personal growth, whilst men must had a specific aim (and in her case study when money was not raised for trophies and such, the men simply didn’t play). She describes nationalism as false loyalty and demands “freedom from [such] unreal loyalties” insisting that women have no country (for should and English woman marry a German man, she would cease to be English and would take on the name and nationality of her husband). “In fact, as a woman I have no country”! So should it be that we all have no country! And since “to fight has always been the man’s habit, not the woman’s”, it seems, according to Woolf’s observations, that it “seems as though there were no progress in the human race, but only repetition.” There are three segments to the piece, each a response to various organizations which asked for a contribution from Woolf. Each received one guinea, and a VERY long letter! One shilling over a pound! But even with the progressive organizations that sought to end war and educate and employ professional women, Woolf still wonders: “Had we not better plunge off the bridge into the river; give up the game; declare that the whole of human life is a mistake and so end it?” Polemic? I don’t think so, since that is pretty close to how she actually ended up killing herself!

 

Fiction: To The Lighthouse, Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway

 

To The Lighthouse

To The Lighthouse is not exactly a book that is a book that is heavy on plot. A family plans to go to a lighthouse to drop some gifts of to those working there. There plan is foiled by bad weather, the next day, but the evening before the eat a large dinner with family and guests. A good many years later half those people have died, either through war, childbirth or illness, and those remaining family members go to the lighthouse. End of story! But this book is not about the plot, it is about tone and character. It is about thought and ideas. At once Freudian, the net movement it is an existentialist track. An author/professor/father (and in that order it seems to him) is the patriarch of his family. He is one who relies on reason and fact, but also worries that, even at a reasonably young age his best day are behind him, and worries that over his life and after his death, that which he has written will no longer be read. There is a duality to this, one existentialist. He is what he does, and since he is resting on his laurels to a degree, he feels empty. Such a reading fits well with the idea that “No happiness lasted”, one of the more terse and tragically accurate assessments made in the novel. On the flip side Woolf seems to enter the conversation regarding the reader/writer relationship and seems to suggest that a text is indeed dead until the reader brings life into it. Like an egg, a book is only potential until it is fertilized, and in the end each reader co-authors the book with the book’s composer. Woolf also grapples with traditional gender roles. The matriarch of the Ramsay family, feel unfulfilled, think of herself and husband that he, “of the two he was infinitely more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible”, whilst her husband “liked that men should labour and sweat on the windy beach at night, pitting muscle and brain against the waves and the wind; he liked men to work like that, and women to keep house, and sit beside sleeping children indoors, while men were drowned, out there in the storm.” These assigned roles seem to fail in contemporary times, but their romanticized traditions seem to dominate and define the lives the characters. Woolf’s aforementioned Three Guineas does rescue the Ramsay matriarch from her perceptions, but still, are perceptions are our realities, and unless believed, adopted and put into practices, Woolf’s academic prose is as inert the unread works the Ramsay family’s patriarch. Woolf delves into the ever complicated and unpredictable waters of Freudian ideology, most notably when detailing the relationship between the Ramsay’s patriarch and one of the sons, who feels particularly close to his mother and sees his father as an invader of sorts and has multiple fantasies about killing his father. Luke Skywalker he is not! The systems of signs and signified does not escpae Woolf’s commentary either as we see with comments like: “French may not contain the words that express the speaker’s thoughts; nevertheless speaking French imposes some order, some uniformity.” Indeed, no language really conveys what we feel or think, but we are left to make due with a flawed system. And of course, no Woolf work would be complete without her tragically accurate commentary on humanity. With the foresight and precognitive ability of Spider-Man, Woolf writes: “There was no treachery to base for the world to commit”, this, more than a full decade before the outbreak of WWII, which saw not only a great number of soldiers and civilians die, but also saw new and barbaric depths of depravity of the human soul as they were manifested in the Holocaust, the Gulag, and other such tragedies. To The Lighthouse is slow, and methodical, and more about tone, ideas, it is more an examination of traditional roles and ideas than a linear narrative, but it is more than well worth reading.

 

Jacob’s Room

As is the case with her academic prose, Jacob’s Room is much an attack on the hegemony of the academic and patriarchal traditions, though with a sharp focus on academia. The book is essentially a character study of sorts of Jacob, the title character and protagonist, but the interesting thing about Jacob, is, though the omnipresent narrator sometimes does explore Jacob’s thoughts, Jacob is generally defined through the women in his life, an approach which seems to turn the typical patriarchal approach upside down. Where as women were often, if not always, defined by the men in their lives (they had their father’s name, then their husbands, and always under the rule of one or the other). Jacob though is painted for the reader, not by himself, but by the women with whom his life touches. We learn who he is in relation to them, what he means to them, and we are not given a full sense of what he means to himself. One of the few times we get to see Jacob’s own though is one in which the hegemonic nature of the patriarch education system is attacked: “He had a violent reversion toward male society, cloistered rooms, and the works of the classics; and was ready to turn with wrath upon whoever had fashioned life thus.” The classics, the old/dead, white men. Of course, Jacob feels overwhelmed and decides that the “problem is insoluble”. Woolf presses further upon the hierarchical nature of western society and asks: “Does history consist of the biographies of great men?” Not only does it question men’s role in history, it questions the ‘grand narrative’, and the fallacy that leader dictate the course of history. Woolf was no doubt aware of the ‘grass roots’ movements, spearheaded by women through out the Hanoverian and Victorian era’s of England, where women spearheaded campaigns to abolish slavery, and extend voting rights for men and women, and urge for a private vote. Indeed, England’s history is filled with ‘petitions’ signed me thousands of women (and men), under the organization of groups of women, working class, middle class and ruling glass (though Woolf would argue all were of the slave class, a polemic argument that has its obviously literal interpretations and potency). Indeed, history, English history most especially, was not always written by the Cromwells and Churchhills and Henrys and Georges, but also by the masses or women, and also by the Elizabeths and Victorias! Embracing this multiplicity, it seems, is the ideal in Woolf’s mind, and one that is hard to argue, and when she notes, with great potency, that “multiplicity becomes unity”, it is easy to indulge the idea (it reminds me of Milton who suggested the multiple schisms of Christianity were like the multitude of materials it took to build a church, laid side-by-side these different materials formed a unified church). And no book of Woolf’s would be complete without an attack on capitalism: “publishers are capitalists- publishers are cowards”. The implications of this are beautiful. The publishers are interested in profit, not money, and will take no chances. The artists are the brave, are the ones who spurn or question what is accepted and push to expand human perceptions. To leave the choices of the civilized world to capitalists is to embrace a stagnant world that is quicker to retreat than it is to progress.

Mrs. Dalloway

Much like Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway is light on plot: Mrs. Dalloway picks up flowers for a party she has that night, and many people attend. That’s pretty much it. But it is a fluid piece that blends the perspectives of many, slides from one perspective to the next easily and subtly and often without warning. It deals with many of the subjects that permeate Woolf’s work. Concepts of women as property defined by their husbands, most notably when the protagonist thinks of herself as “not even Clarissa any more” but rather “Mrs. Richard Dalloway” and she ponders upon the loss of her identity, and when she thinks back upon the apex of her life and realizes that a woman in the autumn of her life seems to have no purpose since there is “no more marrying; no more having of children”. Once she has fulfilled her expected social role and raised her children, there seems to be little left. With existentialist undertones that challenge the limited role of women in a patriarchal society, Woolf seems to be able to tear down the expectations of western traditions, as she does with comments like: “perfect gentlemen… stifle [women’s] soul” and “Every one gives up something when they marry”, while also noting that certain symptoms of social disorder, are not the fault of the women who are blame (though The Contagious Diseases Act would have one believe otherwise), as Woolf writes of prostitutes that “the fault wasn’t in them… but in our detestable social system”. She also challenges the values of those attributes attached to men, valuing those attributed to women with comments like; “Cleverness was silly. One must say simply what one felt.” and “What does the brain matter… compared with the heart”. Woolf seems to value the emotive nature of women to the intellectual pride of men, and indeed, since she sees life from what some would call a pessimistic perspective (though realistic seems more apt to me personally), what with characters who believe “killing themselves” the answer to escape “how wicked people were”, while also questioning human propagation with comments like: “one cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals” and “human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment”. The response to this morose and blackened view is not intellectual instruction (certainly names like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hitler, and Chernobyl can all remind us where reasoning alone can take us), but rather emotive care: “decorate the dungeon with flowers… be as decent as we possible can”. A romantic thought, yes, but an appealing one none the less. In a world where most “desire… solace and relief”, suicide is the answer for one of Woolf’s peripheral characters, who need “Fear no more the heat of the sun” when he finally employs the answer he believe was the only solution to Swift’s “perpetual scene of misery” that is life. Not as easy a read as her academic prose, or even To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway demands the sharp attention of the reader and is the type of work that warrants several readings if one truly wants to absorb the material. I personally was not able to offer such attention in my first reading, but still got much out of the book. A slow moving, methodical and fluid piece, its writing style is not for everybody, but for those who do enjoy it and can offer the attention the book demands, I doubt one will find a much better read elsewhere.

After finishing these books I can think only that Virginia Woolf is one of the most intelligent, talented and beautiful people to ever put pen to paper.

Words and other things, I thought I’d look up!

 

Mary Astell: She was a feminist, when feminism wasn’t cool! An Original F (that means she’s from the first wave). “If all men are created equal, how is it that all women are born slaves?” Harsh! Biting! Accurate? It could be argued so, and I wouldn’t disagree!

 

Christina Rossetti: Essentially the John Donne of the 19th century female set. Wrote romance novels and devotionals? The hole nun/whore dichotomy, or as it was for Donne, the pimp/priest poet.

George Eliot: Pen name of Mary Anne Evans, who wrote under a dude’s name so that people would be prejudice to her writing.

Aphra Behn: 17th century hottie who wrote amatory fiction (for women, by women, about love and romance and funky sexual positions and what not). Famous for writing Oroonoko, which was CLEARLY FICTION! Thought she tried to pass it off as factual, it was a slave narrative of sorts. Like Elvis, Behn was pretty much capitalizing on the success of Black authors whose slave narratives were selling like hot cakes. I mean, she had nice tits from the portraits I’ve seen, and I’d still totally hit that, but I would give her a HUGE lecture about exploitation! I think Whoreson Jones could give me a hand with that.

Mary Kingsley: An English writer and explorer whose writing influenced European ideas about Africa/Africans.

Arthur’s Education Fund: A group of people who beg people like Virginia Woolf for money in the name of social causes such as the education of women.

The Strand: A street in Westminster.

 

Mottled: To mark something with different colours.

Bramble: A thorny blackberry bush.

Plover: A shore bird (Egyptian) with a short beak.

Suppliant: To express humble appeal to one with authority. From the Latin “to bend over”.

Drake: A male duck.

Austere: Suggesting physical hardship, or without luxury.

Glibly: Casual, relaxed, slick or superficial.

Obeisance: Respectful gesture.

Raillery: Joking remark.

Impetuosity: Impulsive.

Dexterous: Skilful and quick witted.

Adroitly: Skilful and quick witted.

Fripperies: An article worn for show.

Fractious: Irritable and complaining.

Fecundity: Creative productivity or the ability to reproduce.

Sanguine: Confident ad ruddy.

Asphodel: Flower of Hades!

Iniquity: Injustice or immorality, from the French to unequal or unjust.

Colloquy: Written dialogue.

Ephemeral: Short-lived.

Poky: Cramped or slow.

Elucidating: Explain something.

Punt: A flat-bottomed boat.

Self-abnegation: To renounce oneself.

Tokay: A small Asian lizard.

Cullender: A bowl-shaped strainer.

Scullery: A small room for washing and storing dishes.

Dallying: To flirt, from the Anglo to amuse oneself.

Larder: Food storage place.

Myriad: From the Greek for countless. Meaning too many to count.

Copiously: Abundantly.

Turbulent: From the Greek for disorder, chaotic and restless.

Mackintosh: Waterproof fabric.

Costermongers: Fruit and vegetable seller.

Pertinacious: Resolute.

Malachite: A decorative stone.

Lugubriously: Gloomy from the Latin, to mourn.

Jocund: Jolly, from the French for joke.

Buckram: Stiff fabric.

Somnolent: Sleepy.

Pother: A state of nervous activity.

Conglomerated: Made up of different businesses.

Obsequious: Submissive.

Plaint: From the Greek meaning to beat one’s breast. It is a statement of feeling.

Eons: From the Greek meaning “life time”. Longest unit of geological time.

Malignant: Wanting to do evil “evil kind”.

Indefatigably: Untiring.

Lozenges: Medical tablet.

Irreticences: Living the scientific life.

Querulous: Tending to complain.

Candelabras: a large decorative candle holder.

Frumps: My frumps, my frumps, my lovely lady frumps. To be frustrated.

Dyspepsia: Indigestion.

Insipidity: Dull or flavourless.

Agog: Very interested.

Perambulator: A baby’s pram. Pram? WTF is a pram? A small wheeled buggy used to carry babies.

Colonnade: A row of supporting columns.

Multitudinously: Full of variety.

Ingot: Metal casting.

Omnibus: A bus.

Incandescent: Glowing with heat.

Hock: Leg of meat.

Farrago: Jumble.

Capacious: Able to hold.

Palpably: Intense.

Anodyne: Bland or soothing.

Prosaic: Lacking imagination.

Sonorous: to resonate, or produce sound.

Akimbo: With hands on hips.

Slovenly: an offensive term describing one who is not concerned with social conformities.

Retinue: Followers, from the same route as retainer.

Craven: Cowardly.

Acquiesce: Agree passively.

Discursion: A lengthy digression, from the Latin word for discourse.

Precipice: High cliff or dangerous peak.

Frieze: A decorative band along a wall.

Vicarage: Its where the vicar lives.

Teasle: A herb.

Pilchards: Small sea fish.

Superciliously: Contemptuously indifferent.

Fritillary: A flower with spotted petals, or a butterfly with spotted wings.

Geld: To castrate and animal! NOOOO! Or to remove one’s strength.

Crinoline: A fabric for stiffening things, like stiffening my….

Cistern: Water tank.

Tergiversation: To change sides or be evasive.

Psychometer: That’s a made up word Virginia!

Derogation: Deviation (I NEED A PINK WORK INSTRUCTION HERE!!!!!!).

Cogency: Producing two forms of energy… AT THE SAME TIME!!!! WHOA!!!!

Exiguous: Limited.

Pander: As Whoreson Jones might say, a romantic go-between. Or a one who prays on weakness and/or aims to procure sexual favours in exchange for money.

Reticent: Often associated with ’reserved’, it originally meant unwilling to communicate, and is similar in that sense to the word silent.

Munificently: Very generous, from the Latin for gift.

Errata: Plural of erratum? WTF is an erratum? Oh, it’s a printing mistake, from the Latin “to wander”, it is also the word from which we get errand. That I assume, but it makes sense in my head, because we wander about when we do errands? No?

Obloquy: A censure or disgrace, from the Latin “to talk against”.

Peroration: Essentially the conclusion of a speech, or more specifically, a long winded speech.

Veranda: Fancy word for porch. Damn fancy people!

Tresses: Lock of hair (no, not that hair, the hair on your head).

Flagellating: To whip somebody, especially with sexual or religious purposes. Sexual or religious? Yeah, same difference.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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