Friday, January 25, 2008

Virginia Woolf's Birthday


From The Writer’s Almanac:

It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, (books by this author) born Virginia Stephen in London (1882). She came from a family of distinguished scholars and literary critics. She said, "[The] Stephens are difficult, especially as the race tapers out towards its finish — such cold fingers, so fastidious, so critical, such taste. ... How I wish they had hunted and fished instead of dictating dispatches and writing books."
She never went to school, but her father chose books for her to read from his own library. Her brothers all went to the best universities, and she wrote letters to them about her reading. She was only allowed to move out of her family home after her father's death, when she was 22. She moved into a house with her brothers and sister, and instead of writing letters about what she'd been reading, she began to write literary criticism for the Times Literary Supplement, and she became one of the most accomplished literary critics of the era.
Of Charles Dickens, she wrote, "Dickens makes his books blaze up not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people upon the fire." Of George Moore, she wrote, "Literature has wound itself about him like a veil, forbidding the free use of his limbs."
In 1917, Woolf and her husband founded Hogarth Press, a printing press that they ran out of their home. It allowed her to publish whatever she wanted, without having to submit her work to editors, and as a result she began to produce a series of experimental novels that might not have been published otherwise, in which she attempted to capture the inner lives of her characters.
Woolf believed that the problem with 19th-century literature was that novelists had focused entirely on the clothing people wore and the food they ate and the things they did. She believed that the most mysterious and essential aspects of human beings were not their possessions or their habits, but their interior emotions and thoughts.
She wrote: "We all indulge in the strange, pleasant process called thinking, but when it comes to saying ... what we think, then how little we are able to convey! The phantom is through the mind and out of the window before we can lay salt on its tail, or slowly sinking and returning to the profound darkness which it has lit up momentarily with a wandering light."
She considered her first few novels failures, but then in 1922, she began to read the work of Marcel Proust, who had died that year. She wrote to a friend, "Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that!" Later that summer, she wrote in her diary "There's no doubt in my mind, that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice."
Her next book was her first masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), about all the thoughts that pass through the mind of a middle-aged woman on the day she gives a party.Woolf wrote: "In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jungle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what [Mrs. Dalloway] loved; life; London; this moment of June."
Woolf went on to write many more novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931), but she was also one of the greatest essayists of her generation. Many of her essays were collected in The Common Reader (1925).
In one of her most famous essays, "The Death of a Moth," Woolf described the experience of watching a moth trapped between two windowpanes. She wrote, "Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body ... as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it."
And in her long essay about women and literature, A Room of One's Own (1929), she wrote: "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity, which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison."


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