“The pollen count, now that’s a difficult job. Especially if you’ve got hay fever.” (Milton Jones)

Normally I celebrate the end of June thusly:

Unfortunately due to the weird summer we’re having (unseasonably hot/unseasonably cold on repeat) the scourge of my life, the devil’s seed, aka grass pollen, is still in abundance and I am refusing to go anywhere that isn’t made of concrete/steel/brick, or some combination thereof.

Well, I’ll tell you, Leo. You live through books of course, same as always. So this week I’m visiting my favourite London park, Regent’s, via two wonderful novels.

Firstly, The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948), where protagonist Stella lives near Regent’s Park and where the opening scene sees counterspy Harrison flirting with Louie, an ordinary young woman who is open to affairs while her husband is away fighting the war.

“The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour. Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs – drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes – presented, between the railings which still girt them, mirages of repose.”

This eerie quality pervades the whole novel. While there is a plot – Harrison wants Stella to spy on her lover Robert, who is spying for the Germans – I felt this was not the driving force of what Bowen is writing about. Instead I think what she is considering is a very specific generation of people at an extraordinary moment in time.

 “Younger by a year or two than the century, [Stella] had grown up just after the First World War with the generation which, as a generation, was come to be made to feel it had muffed the catch. The times, she had in her youth been told on all sides, were without precedent – but then so was her own experience: she had not lived before.”

There is a sense throughout the book of things left unsaid, sentences unfinished, and yet a deep understanding that exists between everyone living through the war.

“So among the crowds still eating, drinking, working, travelling, halting, there began to be an instinctive movement to break down indifference while there was still time. The wall between the living and the living became as solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned. In that September transparency people became transparent, only to be located by the just dark flicker of their hearts.”

People behave in ways that they wouldn’t normally, but they can barely remember what normal is, or why they would behave that way in the first place. Bowen tends to overwrite, but as with the other novels of hers that I’ve read, this quality didn’t bother me as much as it does usually, and I felt it particularly apt here. I just let the writing and the atmosphere wash over me. Thankfully, I’ve not lived through that type of war, but to me Bowen seemed to have done an incredible job at capturing the heightened yet oddly detached experiences that would have occurred:

“But they were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love. Their time sat in the third place at their table. They were the creatures of history, whose coming together was of a nature possible in no other day”

The Heat of the Day is about the tragedy of war in the widest sense, where no guns go off and people carry on whilst feeling torn apart. Sad, desperate, quiet, and beautifully evoked.

Behind all those daisies the evil seed is just biding it’s time…

Next, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) and my shortest review ever. Here it is: Virginia Woolf is a genius and Mrs Dalloway is pretty much a perfect novel. That is all.

I really don’t think I can review Mrs Dalloway. I find Woolf’s writing so rich, multi-layered and complex I feel I can’t possibly do it any kind of justice. Woolf’s treatment of a day in the life of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and shell-shocked Septimus Smith is so sensitive and sophisticated, I feel like a gibbering idiot.  Instead here are some passages:

Clarissa: “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together.”

Septimus in the park with his wife: “Happily Rezia put her hand with a tremendous weight on his knee so that he was weighted down, transfixed, or the excitement of the elm trees rising and falling, rising and falling with all their leaves alight and the colour thinning and thickening from blue to the green of a hollow wave, like plumes on horses’ heads, feathers on ladies’, so proudly they rose and fell, so superbly, would have sent him mad. But he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more.”

The recurring motif of the chiming of Big Ben: “The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”

Finally: “It was a splendid morning too. Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

*Sigh* Even if you’ve already done so, please read Mrs Dalloway. And then read it again.

To end, the most wonderful cinematic ending: Withnail and I, and the wolves of London Zoo viewed from Regent’s Park.

“Mothers are all slightly insane.” (JD Salinger)

You’re not wrong, JD. Mine is in definite box-of-frogs territory. It’s the thing I like most about her. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, but a relationship such as ours will never be immortalised in literature given that we get on well and it would be inexorably dull. So for mother’s day (which it is today in the UK) I’m looking at two portrayals of mothers that are nothing like my own but which make for great reads. This post is dedicated not only to my own mother, but also to my sister-in-law, for whom today is her first mother’s day as a mother 🙂

My mother and I have never been this adorable

My mother and I have never been this adorable

Image from here

My first literary mother is Mrs Ramsay from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I chose this because Virginia Woolf is one of my mother’s favourite writers, and like the homebrew peach schnapps I once allowed past my lips, I deeply regret this now. How on earth do you write about anything by Virginia Woolf? Her writing is so rich, so multi-layered, so dense and yet so subtle that I don’t feel adequate to the task – which I’m sure the following discussion will prove beyond a doubt 😉

In To the Lighthouse, the Ramsay family descend on their holiday home in the Isle of Skye. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness technique is perfect at capturing everything that occurs beneath the surface of an ordinary day, the deep significance below the seemingly insignificant:

“the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo on her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, ‘I am guarding you – I am your support’, but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all as ephemeral as a rainbow – this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.”

Mrs Ramsay is a nurturing and dedicated mother but here Woolf exposes the fractures that threaten a seemingly harmonious exterior.  I think this passage is just brilliant – the setting up of the monotonous background noise that lulls yet twists in a moment, the mind rebelling against the self, the pure terror that we can be overwhelmed by our own feelings – all while domesticity continues undisturbed.

The family are surrounded by Mrs Ramsay’s nuturing love and the sea, and as the passage  above shows, these are bound together in their constancy being mistaken for predictability. To the Lighthouse uses water imagery to great effect, the sustaining essence that can imperil and kill:

“how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach”

This is my experience of reading Woolf: small incidents, layered up into writing of such power that you surface from her novels feeling dashed by a powerful force.

If you’d like to read some proper reviews of this wonderful novel, there have been insightful and interesting posts written lately by bloggers including Lady Fancifull and Simon at Stuck in a Book. If you’d like to know more about the man Mrs Ramsay married, a man given to views such as: “He wondered if she understood what she was reading. Probably not, he thought. She was astonishingly beautiful.” Sarah has written a typically witty and entertaining post over at Hard Book Habit.

Secondly, The Blue Room by Norwegian author Hanne Orstavik (trans. Deborah Dawkin) one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. I can’t remember which blogger made me aware of this so if it was you please leave a comment! Peirene Press publish contemporary European novellas, and group them in sets of three, linked by theme. The Blue Room is part of the Coming-of-Age series, and concerns Johanne’s intense relationship with her mother; they live together while Johanne trains to be a psychologist. Her career choice is deeply ironic, given that she has no insight into the manipulative, controlling behaviour her mother directs towards her, or her own victimhood.

“She’s right, I thought, we belong together like two clasped hands.”

Well, two clasped hands can be affectionate, reassuring, but also restraining and restrictive. The novel takes place over the course of a day, when Johanne was due to leave to spend six weeks in the States with her boyfriend, yet wakes to find herself locked in the titular space and unable to leave. As she thinks back over recent events, relationships with her mother, boyfriend and God emerge and the reader is left to piece together what is going on beyond what Johanne doesn’t say. She is an unreliable narrator of her own life as we all are, because her perspective is limited by what she cannot see.

Her mother is deeply controlling and Johanne has the victim’s hypersensitivity to her abuser’s every need and whim. At no point does she articulate that it is her mother who has locked her in, unwilling to let her leave.

“Perhaps I’m locked in here as part of an experiment. Perhaps somebody’s pumping gases in and changing my consciousness.”

Johanne’s sexual fantasies abruptly break into the narrative, filled with violence,  with herself as the dominated party in BDSM scenarios. Again, despite her training, she cannot see how this is bound up in her relationship with her mother:

“And what exactly, I asked, is the meaning of this pain? Don’t we grow when we’re happy? Mum looked at me: she seemed angry and said nothing.”

Johanne is young and naïve, lacking insight, both sweet and shocking. The Blue Room is a powerful novella about our closest relationships and how they influence us in ways we barely comprehend.

To end, a little treat for my mother and any other LDP fans out there – enjoy!

“When you’re a Jet/You’re a Jet all the way /From your first cigarette /To your last dyin’ day.” (West Side Story)

This is a loooong post – strap in people, and bring Kendal mint cake.

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These days I don’t generally socialise as part of a group (unless it’s a work do, an experience that Dante forgot to include in his descriptions of the circles of hell) but in the last week I’ve been out with two sets of friends, which was a lovely change. For this reason, in this post I thought I’d look  at writers who have famously been part of a group.

Firstly, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, which was published after his death and recalls his time as a young man in Paris during the interwar period, part of une generation perdue, or lost generation:

“’’That’s what you are. That’s what you all are,’ Miss Stein said. ‘All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.’

‘Really?’ I said.

‘You are,’ she insisted. ‘You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death…’”

Miss Stein is of course Gertrude Stein, and her literary salon attracts some of the greatest writers of the generation: F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford (a less than flattering portrait), Hilaire Belloc, James Joyce… it really is astonishing that these minds were all in the same place at the same time.

Montmartre in 1925

Montmartre in 1925

I can’t tell you how much I want to dislike Hemingway. He was macho, into bloodsports, treated women appallingly… but his writing just takes my breath away.  A Moveable Feast gives some insight into his craft; his drive to write what is true and to distil his writing into the sparse style he became so famous for:

“Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

He is filled with the arrogance and uncertainty of youth, completely committed to his craft:

“I’ve seen you beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.”

 “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’”

While he is sitting in cafes trying to write one true sentence, the young Hemingway comes into contact with various writers also trying to perfect their craft, including one of my favourite poets, Ezra Pound:

“Ezra was kinder and more Christian about people than I was. His own writing, when he would hit it right, was so perfect, and he was so sincere in his mistakes and so enamoured of his errors, and so kind to people, that I always thought of him as a sort of saint. He was also irascible, but so perhaps have been many saints.”

I just don’t understand how a person unfailingly described by all who knew him as being so generous, supportive and kind could also be such a massive fascist. It does make me feel a bit better about liking his poetry though. He also provides many of the episodes of comic relief in A Moveable Feast:

“I had heard complaining all my life. I found I could go on writing and that it was no worse than other noises, certainly better than Ezra learning to play the bassoon.”

Hemingway and his first wife were poverty-stricken in this period, and one of the places that offers succour is the now-famous English language bookshop Shakespeare and Company under the auspices of Sylvia Beach:

“On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter , tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.”

From within this perfect bookshop, Sylvia lends Hemingway and Hadley money and books, and helps create the man who would write this about F Scott Fitzgerald:

F-Scott-Fitzgerald-and-zelda

“His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and he could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”

If that passage doesn’t want to make you weep at the tragic beauty of it all, then I don’t know if we can be friends.  Damn you Hemingway, you’ve made me love you just like all those other women who should have kept well away.  Thank goodness we didn’t meet when you looked like this:

ernest-hemingway1

Or things could have got messy. (Seriously, who looks like that in a passport photo? I look like I’m out on day-release in mine).

Woody Allen explored the attraction of this group of writers in Midnight in Paris. I liked the film, but even a friend who loathed it admitted Corey Stoll did a great job as Hemingway:

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, not the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

Secondly, The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf, who was part of the Bloomsbury group, and in his second (final) novel portrays his wife, Virginia.  He is also in the privileged position of being one of the few male authors published by Persephone Books, and their lovely edition of this novel includes an endpaper print by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Harry Davis moves with his family into the stultifying suburban society of Richstead (Richmond/Hampstead) where he is introduced to the Garlands and their four daughters, who do nothing all day because that is all they are expected to do:

 “Harry felt the dull sense of depression creeping over him again. ‘It’s so bad,’ he said, ‘to be comfortable. That’s why you want to go on forever in the same place.’

‘But I like being comfortable,’ said Ethel decisively. ‘I don’t think it’s bad at all.’

Harry remained silent; he couldn’t think of anything more to say. Gwen watched his rather heavy face. She could not make him out; she was not sure whether she liked him or hated him at first sight. He seemed to be exceedingly ill-mannered, she thought.”

Harry is an artist, and wants so much more.  He meets the intellectual, free-thinking Camilla (seen as representing Virginia) and falls in love.  While I think reading the novel for biographical ‘clues’ misses the point and would prevent enjoying the novel fully, it’s not difficult to imagine Virginia agreeing with some of Camilla’s sentiments:

“’There’s so much from marriage from which I recoil. It seems to shut women up and out. I won’t be tied by the pettiness and the conventionalities of life. There must be some way out. One must live one’s own life’”

The difficulty is, most of the characters are too vacuous, lazy and pretentious to tread their own path. They’re not terrible people, but the Bloomsbury set seem to sit around all day trying to be clever, while the suburban set obsess over flowers. Apparently some found Camilla-as-Virginia offensive, but if that was what Woolf was doing, Leonard-as-Harry fares little better, too weak to ever seize the life he imagines, lacking the courage of his own convictions:

“He turned over, and lay flat, burying his face in the grass. Harry felt as if he himself were turning into stone. He just managed to say:

‘You think her absolutely cold?’

‘She’s a woman and a virgin: isn’t that enough?…What they want is to be desired – that’s all. And when they get that from some poor devil with a straight back and a clean face, they think they are in love with him, and he marries, to be disappointed.”

If all this sounds terribly tedious, it isn’t.  Woolf satirises early twentieth-century society and shows how it denies sexuality and oppresses men and women, but especially women.  It could be a bleak novel – none of the characters really know what they want or how to break free – but I think we’re not meant to take them as seriously as they take themselves. While it’s not a broad comedic novel, The Wise Virgins has plenty of humour in it:

“This gentleman was undoubtedly a clergyman; his red nose and the causes of it had made it difficult for him to be a minister of Christ for any long time in one place…his life had its advantages, he used to affirm in his more secular moments, because he never had to write a new sermon; one congregation after another listened to the same four which had escaped the wear and tear of wandering with their author up and down England.”

The Wise Virgins is about a denial of desires both individual and collective, and how damaging it can be. The Bloomsbury group in real-life were much more sexually liberated, and while I’m not sure the result was damage-limitation, it did result in some beautiful art:

Vanessa Bell painted by Duncan Grant

Vanessa Bell painted by Duncan Grant

You made it to the end of this post! Thanks for reading, and here is your reward:

“If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Last week I watched When Corden Met Barlow, which had James Corden interviewing Gary Barlow. For those of you who don’t know these people, the former is a comedy writer and performer, the latter is a member of pop group Take That.  When Take That split, Barlow was vilified in the press, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, as he seems an all-round good bloke. Take That have since reformed, and Gary Barlow is now proclaimed a national treasure by the very same press that tore him apart (update: see comments below for why this might have changed somewhat!)  This got me thinking about how fame is constructed, and how it seems almost entirely arbitrary, not based on the person themselves but the image that is created, sometimes not even that.  To this end, I thought I’d look this week at novels that feature a famous person as one of the characters.

Firstly, The Great Lover by Jill Dawson (Sceptre, 2009), which concerns the poet Rupert Brooke.  I went into this novel with some degree of trepidation because I think Brooke was a fairly mediocre poet, whose fame was elevated because he was posh, pretty and patriotic; exactly the type of person the establishment wanted to represent its lost youth in World War One.

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(Image from: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Rupert-Brooke-English-Writer-in-1913-Posters_i6856357_.htm )

Rather him than Wilfred Owen, who was middle-class, ordinary looking, gay, and whose verse took an uncompromising look at trench warfare.  Of course, since then the quality of Owen’s poetry has seen his reputation far outstrip that of Brooke.  But I will now climb down off my soapbox, and say that my concerns were unfounded, as this whole issue of  image construction is precisely what Dawson is analysing in her novel. For example, with the rumour that Brooke fathered a child in Tahiti:

 “perhaps people find it difficult to square the idea of the golden Apollo, the intellectual gentleman-soldier, finding peace not in an English meadow but on a tropical island far away.”

The novel is alternately narrated by Brooke and a maid where he boards in Granchester, the spunky and (mostly) wise Nell Golightly.  In the present day, she is trying to convey the man she knew in a letter to the possible daughter of Brooke, who is now an elderly lady in Tahiti.  In this way, Dawson draws attention to how biographies are as much about the biographers as their ostensible subject:

“I believe your mother wrote: “I get fat all the time.” Well, any woman would understand the meaning in that sentence.  Unfortunately, your father’s biographers have all been men.”

The novel also shows the burden of fame, of being proclaimed “the handsomest young man in England” by WB Yeats. “I have the strongest feeling of foreboding.  Something beyond my worst fears is about to happen […] And I think I know what it might be, but what I cannot tell is whether it is coming from inside my head or outside.  Whatever it is, it is here at last. The construction, the Rupert Brooke, cannot hold me any longer.”

Through the first-person narrative, Dawson doesn’t give us a perfect golden-child Brooke, but the wholly subjective experience of a flawed, troubled man who is just so young, and given to unintentionally funny insights:

“The Great Lover, that’s me, not the beloved.  The beloved is despicable. That’s the role of a girl.”

“I have resolved that Sodomy can only ever be for me a hobby, not a full-time occupation.”

This callow, aggrandising way could irritate some readers, but for me it just brought home how beyond all the image, Brooke was just a young man, as human as the rest of us, and how tragic it was that he and so many like him had their lives cut short: “the war was only the last eight months of his life, and yet that’s what he’s remembered for”.

What Dawson gives us through Nell’s voice is a fond but clear-eyed portrait of Brooke. “All that he was to me was gathered into that look I cast, but I don’t know if he saw it, or knew.” It made me feel that a well-researched (as this novel clearly is) fictional interpretation is probably just as valid as a “factual” biography.

 “he was a difficult man to pin down, and he was in the habit of saying things playfully that he did not mean at all, or were quite the opposite of his meaning, so maybe it’s true that he was a little more of a slippery fish than some.”

So what are we left with?  The answer is, the same as with any artist we admire: “Rupert’s true heart beats only on paper”.  Their works are what speak most eloquently for them.

Secondly, someone who allegedly went skinny-dipping with Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf.

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(Image from: http://www.4thestate.co.uk/?attachment_id=10089 )

The Hours by Michael Cunningham (4th Estate, 1999) is Pulitzer-winning novel which tells the story of three women linked by Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway.

One is Woolf herself, writing the novel in 1923; the others are Laura Brown, a housewife reading the novel in Los Angeles 1949; and Clarissa Vaughan, planning a party for a friend who calls her Mrs Dalloway, in New York at the end of twentieth century.  The Hours is proof that a book doesn’t have to be long to be brilliant. At just 226 pages in my edition, it is so beautifully written that I had trouble pulling out individual quotes for this post.  Each of the women lives a single day, both ordinary and extraordinary:

“Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hairdryer because it is her art and her duty.”

Virginia Woolf’s fragile mental state is handled with great sensitivity, showing how she struggles to remain sane, and how the desires of those around her to keep her so may not be the best thing for her life:

“She is better, she is safer, if she rests in Richmond; if she does not speak too much, write too much, feel too much; if she does not travel impetuously to London and walk through its streets; and yet she is dying this way, she is gently dying on a bed of roses.”

The novel brilliantly captures the small, transient moments that make up life, and how they can all add up to great meaning, whilst seeming to signify nothing:

““You can’t possibly have too many roses” Clarissa says.

Sally hands the flowers to her and for a moment they are both simply and entirely happy.  They are present, right now, and they have managed, somehow, over the course of eighteen years, to continue loving each other.  It is enough.  At this moment, it is enough.”

Astonishingly, the echoes across the three women’s lives from Mrs Dalloway and between each other never feels contrived.  It is a brilliant evocation of lives led more or less quietly, and each character is strongly drawn enough to stand alone as well as alongside the other two.

I loved The Hours.  The individual plots were well-paced, sensitive and insightful, in a style that used language delicately but was never pretentious. Highly recommended.

A film was made of The Hours in 2002.  It’s quite good if you can get past the distraction of Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose (it took me a while):

A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #69)

Today’s post is  the latest in a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

A Room of One’s Own grew out of lectures Virginia Woolf was asked to give at Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge, in 1928. You can read the full essay in various places online. Women were only officially admitted to the university in 1948, and the fact that these talks were given 20 years previously shows just how ground-breaking Woolf was.  A Room of One’s Own is a vital proto-feminist text that remains relevant today.  The fact that you can buy bags, pillows, tea towels, deckchairs, mugs, notebooks ad infinitum with the book cover on is an indicator of how much the central image continues to speak to people, as well as the arguments themselves.

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(Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/particularbooks/postcards-from/)

The central image is: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  In other words, she needs a means to support herself, and space to reflect and think; she needs liberty, and these things have been traditionally denied to women.  They have been dependent on the men in their family for financial support, and not supposed to concern their pretty little heads with intellectual endeavour.  Woolf argues her points forcefully but wittily, you never feel you are being bludgeoned by polemic.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain. When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow; some witticisms if possible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to George Eliot; a reference to Mrs Gaskell and one would have done.”

The paucity of women writers Woolf has at her disposal to refer to speaks volumes about the male dominance of writing up to this point, and the reliance on male point of view for literary portrayals of women:

“women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time — Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes … Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater.”

Of course, Woolf was a highly accomplished and inventive writer herself, and this is reflected in the lecture which is not traditionally academic but instead illustrated with fictional characters such as Judith Shakespeare, sister of the more famous William:

 “his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. […]She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face […]who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? [She] killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.”

As my extensive quoting shows, I think this is a fantastic essay, well worth reading. It isn’t flawless, it’s culturally biased towards the speaker and her audience: middle-class, white, Western women.  But Woolf never claims to have all the answers: “women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.” (I think the idea of women as an unresolved problem is ironic and assertive, not derogatory?) A Room of One’s Own highlights enduring problems, relevant to both genders, of how to claim societal freedom that will permit individual voices to be heard. It also makes me very glad that I am a woman in this day and age; I may be embarrassed at how ridiculously over-educated I am (a perennial student) but at least I had the choice to become so.

To end, a picture of a room I wish was my own – it could do with a few more books, though…

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(Image from http://pawilson.ca/are-there-some-books-you-keep-reading-over-and-over/ )