Virginia Woolf

View previous topic View next topic Go down

Virginia Woolf

Post  eddie on Sun Oct 23, 2011 7:37 pm

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris – review

Alexandra Harris's brief life of Virginia Woolf is brisk and crisply written

Tessa Hadley
guardian.co.uk, Friday 21 October 2011 22.55 BST


The novelist and critic Virginia Woolf. Photograph: George C Beresford/Getty Images

Sometimes Virginia Woolf writes so exquisitely well. In Between the Acts, Giles arrives home from work in the city and finds a car at the door, which tells him there are visitors to lunch. "The ghost of convention rose to the surface, as a blush or a tear rises to the surface at the pressure of emotion; so the car touched his training. He must change." That's so characteristic in its delicate evanescence – there's not a solid word in there (except for the dread car). Everything floats, and yet in its floating is precise. The theme is characteristic Woolf too: the capture of the under-layers of consciousness, and how the fixity of social forms ("he must change" – his clothes and his demeanour, himself), imposes cruelly on their fluidity.


Virginia Woolf
by Alexandra Harris

And sometimes she writes so heavily, in such laboured sentences. I can't make myself like, for instance, the opening of The Waves, day dawning over the sea. The first paragraph is all right, though not exciting; then in the second "the sky cleared as if the white sediment there had sunk, or as if the arm of a woman crouched beneath the horizon had raised a lamp and flat bars of white, green and yellow spread across the sky like the blades of a fan. Then she raised her lamp higher and the air seemed to become fibrous and to tear away from the green surface …" Isn't that effortful and self-conscious? I can't see through the woman and the lamp (and the fan, and the fibres) to any fresh morning. And there's something heavily, surprisingly Victorian about the image – more John Martin than Roger Fry.

Katherine Mansfield's "At the Bay" begins with dawn over the sea, too. "The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered … The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them …" The unornamented, denoting language seems effortlessly transparent. Writing, Mansfield seems to have forgotten us in the trance of seeing and listing (seeing what isn't there); reading, we forget ourselves. Woolf's attention, by contrast, seems to twist anxiously between looking ahead at the thing she tries to make, and looking back at us watching her do it – her audience, her judges. She is trying too hard; or rather (all good writers are trying hard), her trying shows up on her writing surface, as a residue of fuss, a too-manifest apparatus of cleverness and attention to effect.

Hermione Lee's marvellously rich 1996 biography records in detail Woolf's lifelong, crippling sensitivity to judgment of her work, the easy collapse of her writing authority, a pattern of breakdown around publication time. Correcting proofs of The Voyage Out, her first novel, in 1913, Woolf was "near the precipice"; in 1940, close to finishing Between the Acts, she thinks it's "a completely worthless book". The reflex of undermining doubt is registered too – necessarily more sketchily – in Alexandra Harris's short new account.

It was the shadow side of a writer who was also powerfully impressive, in her life and her books: brilliant, great fun, scurrilous, domineering. ("Woolf liked her power to intimidate people," Harris writes, "and her power to inspire them.") The doubt can't be explained away, but does seem to relate to the problem set out by Woolf, more or less, in To the Lighthouse: the burden of performance imposed by being born the daughter of such Victorian paragons as Leslie and Julia Stephen – tyrannously loving father and impossibly self-sacrificing mother. Leslie, says Harris, "called in aid a certain nineteenth-century cult of male genius which allowed for fits of rage and inspiration"; Julia "was the central magnetic force in all the children's lives … a gracious, melancholy beauty … the mythologised subject of … Victorian dreams". No matter how defiantly Woolf invented her own more flexible forms of life (and writing), some painful fracture seemed to endure in her, so that she was always haunted by a fear that her work would be judged, and found wanting. Out of which fear, darkness fumed up from time to time.

Woolf's work was an important element in the argument of Alexandra Harris's first book, Romantic Moderns (winner of the Guardian First Book award), an ambitious account of the arts in mid-20th century England. Romantic Moderns suggests that there are two divergent narratives of the aesthetics of the period – one emphasising landscape and rural continuity, artistic practices respectful of the English past and traditions; the other an angrier and more iconoclastic modernism, influenced by ideas from mainland Europe, where trust in the past had been more cruelly tested. Harris wants to synthesise these separate stories, describing significant English visual artists and writers of the period as holding in balance an authentic newness and a tenderness for the past. Whatever the merits of this account of English inter-war culture more broadly, it's clear how Woolf fits inside it, in her uneasy positioning between the world of the past and literary modernity.

Several pages of Romantic Moderns are dedicated to the pageant in Between the Acts, where the villagers represent for the gentry-audience the successive eras of English history. The novel's cutting between the performance (representing – for all its muddle – cohesion, continuity, shared narrative) and the inner lives of those watching (inchoate, fluid, locked into their solitude) fits Harris's thesis neatly, almost programmatically; although I find Woolf's handling of the pageant dated and uncomfortable, over-long – it's too programmatic, precisely. A less sympathetic account could be given, of the reconciliation between tradition and modernity in Woolf; at her least good, for all the bright splash of her style, she can read as trapped inside a faded and sentimental version of history (just as she can get stuck sometimes inside an oddly Tennysonian vocabulary).

There's not room for much of this kind of speculation in Harris's new biography, because she has to get through the life at such a pace; the value of the work and the validity of our fascination with the life have to be taken pretty much as given. The novels as they crop up are dealt with in summary, which can seem blandly vague: The Years reveals "her aesthetic pleasure in ordinary things. The book has a glimmering quality about it, a sense of significance we can't quite grasp." And because there isn't space for patient accumulations of evidence – letters, diary entries, memoirs – the story of the life is subject to the biographer's own brisk idiom – sometimes sharp, sometimes falling short of the required complexity. ("So Virginia Woolf in her early 40s felt both at the very centre of things and on the periphery …") On the other hand, the life really is fascinating – poignant and haunted, and yielding, even as it's compressed here, rich period atmospherics. Harris tells the story crisply and with personality, and the book is beautifully produced by Thames & Hudson, on lovely paper and with lots of photographs.

Writing a little introductory book about Woolf – a "first port of call for those new" to her, and "an enticement to read more" – why would one begin by foregrounding the life rather than the writing? Perhaps Woolf is becoming one of those authors – like the Brontës – whose work can't be untangled any longer, in our collective mythology, from her own story. And there's one sense at least, in Woolf's case, in which that isn't such a bad thing. The scraps and fragments of her writing, scribbled in diaries and letters and unfinished fragments, are often wonderful. The treatment of the death of Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, famously brief, is very striking; the death of the Pargiters' mother is the best thing in The Years. But neither has the extraordinary impact of the notebook fragments and autobiographical sketches Lee assembles, putting together her account of Woolf's reaction to her mother's death. "Her face looked immeasurably distant, hollow and stern. When I kissed her, it was like kissing cold iron. Whenever I touch cold iron the feeling comes back to me – the feeling of my mother's face, iron cold, and granulated." The sentences and the perceptions feel unbound, as if Woolf is writing free from any requirement to be clever, to be good.

Tessa Hadley's The London Train is published by Cape.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights

eddie
The Gap Minder

Posts : 7840
Join date : 2011-04-11
Age : 60
Location : Desert Island

Back to top Go down

Re: Virginia Woolf

Post  eddie on Tue Dec 06, 2011 6:50 am

Winter reads: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

The unforgettable depiction of the devastatingly 'Great Frost' contains some of Woolf's warmest writing

Sam Jordison

guardian.co.uk, Monday 5 December 2011 12.27 GMT


Tilda Swinton as Orlando in Sally Potter's 1992 film version

As Virginia Woolf describes it in Orlando, "The Great Frost" of 1608/09 was so severe that "birds froze in mid air and fell like stones to the ground". Other strange events occurred: "At Norwich a young countrywoman started to cross the road in her usual robust health and was seen by onlookers to turn visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs as the icy blast struck her at the street corner." She also notes that "an increase in rocks in Derbyshire" was attributed to "the solidification of unfortunate wayfarers".


Orlando
by Virginia Woolf

Pretty cold then – although I hope it isn't too much of a contradiction to say that, in her descriptions of the four months during which the river Thames froze solid, Woolf produced some of her sunniest, brightest prose. Her writing glows with ruddy-cheeked joy as she depicts the fair that was held on the ice: "a carnival of the utmost brilliancy"; a pleasure ground "with arbours, mazes, alleys, drinking booths". Thanks to Woolf's delightful depiction, it becomes a place that would set even the coldest, stoniest heart racing. The following passage gives a good impression of just how wonderful it all is:

"Great statesmen, in their beards and ruffs, despatched affairs of state under the crimson awning of the Royal Pagoda ... Frozen roses fell in showers when the Queen and her ladies walked abroad ... Near London Bridge, where the river had frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat was plainly visible, lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples. The old bumboat woman, who was carrying her fruit to market on the Surrey side, sat there in her plaids and farthingales with her lap full of apples, for all the world as if she were about to serve a customer, though a certain blueness about the lips hinted the truth."

Soon we see the young Orlando falling for the entrancing Sasha – "a melon, an emerald a fox in the snow" – skating downriver past tall boats from all around the world frozen into port. Just as soon, Sasha betrays him, the ice melts, the river gains its freedom, hundreds of revellers are washed downstream on little icebergs, pacing "their twisting and precarious islands in the utmost agony of spirit."

The cold is mainly forgotten then, and Orlando moves on to languorous sunny afternoons spent in the shade of oak trees and the hot sun of Turkey. Even so, this remains a winter read. Orlando never leaves the ice entirely, since he (and, as he later becomes, she) is frozen in time. Even hundreds of years later s/he remains the same person who fell in love on those winter days in the 17th century – and those heady days breathe their cold magic throughout this strange, sometimes bewildering but generally wonderful book. Plus, Woolf can't resist returning to the cold now and again, most notably in her description of the permanent winter damp and black cloud that hung over the 19th century:

"Everywhere the effects were felt. The hardy country gentleman, who had sat down gladly to a meal of ale and beef in a room designed, perhaps by the brothers Adam, with classic dignity, now felt chilly. Rugs appeared; beards were grown; trousers were fastened tight under the instep. The chill which he felt in his legs the country gentleman soon transferred to his house; furniture was muffled; walls and tables were covered; nothing was left bare."

Glorious, isn't it? Next time anyone tries to tell you – as people often do – that Virginia Woolf was a cold fish, just direct them to her seductive writing about winter. It warms the heart.

eddie
The Gap Minder

Posts : 7840
Join date : 2011-04-11
Age : 60
Location : Desert Island

Back to top Go down

Re: Virginia Woolf

Post  eddie on Sun Feb 05, 2012 11:27 am

How a bearded Virginia Woolf and her band of 'jolly savages' hoaxed the navy

Letter to go on sale revealing how Bloomsbury group duped an admiral – but feared fake beards would give them away

Dalya Alberge

The Observer, Sunday 5 February 2012


Virginia Woolf, left, and the Bloomsbury group hoaxers. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos for the Observer

One of the most famous practical jokes in British military history has returned to haunt the Royal Navy – more than a century later.

A previously unknown letter has surfaced, detailing the "shriekingly funny" Dreadnought hoax of 7 February 1910, when members of the Bloomsbury group of writers and artists donned beards and costumes to disguise themselves as Abyssinian princes and gained access to the pride of the British naval fleet.

The letter was written by Horace de Vere Cole, who described how he and five friends, including the novelist Virginia Woolf and painter Duncan Grant, duped an admiral and the crew of the battleship HMS Dreadnought, flagship of the home fleet.

Four of them pretended to be Abyssinians and two claimed to be their Foreign Office guides. Even Woolf's cousin, one of the naval officers on board the ship, failed to recognise the author in her fake beard.

Once on board, the visitors were given the full red-carpet treatment: a band played, the crew saluted them and African flags were hoisted to the masthead. When invited to dine with the officers they declined, in their version of Swahili – seemingly translated by Woolf's brother, Adrian Stephen – because the food and drink had not been prepared correctly. The group actually feared that their fake beards would fall off.

Reports of the hoax – three double-sided sheets long – made the newspapers a few days later and provoked questions in parliament that led to a tightening of regulations for ceremonial parties.

The letter was written by Cole to a friend a day after the hoax. Noting that, "the idea was mine, but the carrying out was the work of six," Cole wrote: "The interpreter, the four princes and an officer went over the ship talking gibberish fluently … We departed to the band strains and the company of marines drawn up and the staff at the salute once more.

"It was glorious! Shriekingly funny – I nearly howled when introducing the four princes to the admiral and then to the captain, for I made their names up in the train, but I forgot which was which, and introduced them under various names, but it did not matter!

"They were tremendously polite and nice – couldn't have been nicer: one almost regretted the outrage on their hospitality."

The hospitality extended to a carriage for the group's journey to London from Weymouth.

Cole added: "I was so amused at being just myself in a tall hat – I had no disguise whatever and talked in an ordinary friendly way to everyone – the others talked nonsense. We had all learned some Swahili: I said they were 'jolly savages' but that I didn't understand much of what they said … It began to rain slightly on the ship and we only just got the princes under cover in time, another moment and their complexions would have been running – Are you amused? I am … Yesterday was a day worth the living."

The letter has been brought to light by a descendant of its original recipient and is being offered for sale by Rick Gekoski, a London dealer in rare books and manuscripts, who said: "Just imagine trying to do such a thing now. This is elegant and audacious, very Edwardian."

The letter is accompanied by an original photograph of the friends in "Abyssinian" costume, annotated by Cole with their fake names.

Martyn Downer, the author of Cole's biography, The Sultan of Zanzibar, described the letter as particularly interesting as most of Cole's papers were destroyed or lost. "Although he was born to a great fortune, he lost it all and ended his life in great penury," he said.

The Navy did take revenge on one of the hoaxers. Three sailors abducted Grant and took him to Hampstead Heath, where they were reported to have caned him.

eddie
The Gap Minder

Posts : 7840
Join date : 2011-04-11
Age : 60
Location : Desert Island

Back to top Go down

Re: Virginia Woolf

Post  Sponsored content Today at 6:04 pm


Sponsored content


Back to top Go down

View previous topic View next topic Back to top

- Similar topics

 
Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum