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Sunday 29 March 2015

Reflections on reading Virginia Woolf

A few months ago I set out to read everything by Virginia Woolf. Over the months this task has morphed into reading all the fiction by Virginia Woolf, with her non-fiction – essays, letters – to follow on. Partly this change was because of my commitment to the #TBR20 initiative, which I didn’t want to be entirely populated by Virginia Woolf books; partly this was down the need to return all the Woolf books I’d borrowed to the library – for some reason they wouldn't let me hold onto them indefinitely. So in the end I managed to read all Woolf’s novels and, at some point later this year, I’ll start working my way through her non-fiction writing. I’m looking forward to her letters in particular.

So what did I learn from this? Was it a worthwhile exercise? Yes, I think it was. My early attempts at reading Woolf were fraught with conflict. I’d tried Mrs. Dalloway, I’d read Orlando. There was something about both of these books that I struggled to reconcile myself with, and in my wider reading of Woolf that hasn't changed. These books are not the exception; I found myself polarized by her catalogue: some books I loved, thought were wonderful; others I had to force myself through. Is Woolf a great writer? Undoubtedly. Some of her novels are astoundingly good, and even when she’s not on her ‘best’ form, she is still extraordinarily good. She has a sharp eye for character, I have encountered no other writer who has Woolf’s capability for skewering the essence of a person in a mere handful of words. She had an eye for ‘scenes’ and this eye pierces her work with some memorable short observations, like the little old blind woman in Jacob’s Room who, even now, I can see. She has a capacity for fun, as demonstrated in Night and Day; she is never sentimental or mawkish. She is a poet, her writing is vivid and memorable even if sometimes it descends into chaotic, feverishness that is hard to follow.

It would be hard to rank Woolf’s novels, I suspect that different people will have very different experiences of her work. I have heard from many people who love Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, but find her other works impenetrable. For me, the standout works were To the Lighthouse (which I think is her absolute best), Jacob’s Room and The Waves. Of these The Waves was hardest to follow, her most poetic and ‘difficult’ work, but I think if you can approach it without trying too hard to understand it, just let the prose wash over you like the waves on the shore, then the extraordinary beauty of it becomes more clear. Next for me would be Night and Day and then The Years. I have a great fondness for Night and Day, it is a personable and lovable book. Dalloway and Orlando are books with which I have a complicated relationship. I want to love them both, but I don’t. Maybe my views on those will change in the future, I think Dalloway in particular needs multiple readings to draw out its worth. The Voyage Out is a good introduction to Woolf for anyone who wants to start reading her without leaping into her more experimental works. That leaves the ones I didn’t like: Between the Acts and Flush. I struggled to find redeeming features in either of these books.

To the Lighthouse, though. That’s a book that I would be happy to read over and over. It is a magnetic read, beautifully written and absorbing. It is a true testament to Woolf’s ability as an artist that she could take such a seemingly insignificant event and draw every drop of quiet drama from it. It is a masterpiece that everyone who loves to read ought to read. To the Lighthouse is the book, in my opinion, that shows Woolf at her best and earns her a well-deserved place in the literary canon.

What I haven’t mentioned here is Woolf’s diary which is the book that propelled me on this journey through Woolf’s books. I have only read the abridged version, the version Leonard Woolf edited to show Virginia’s life as a writer, but would like to read the full unexpurgated versions one day. In her diaries we learn of Woolf’s writing journey, her tortures and triumphs and we also see something of the woman, her concerns and her desires. It makes for an enlightening read, and I would recommend this to everyone.

I am so glad I spent some time discovering the treasures in Virginia Woolf’s writings. It is not a journey I have finished, in fact I think it is a journey I am still at the beginning of. I still have to read her non-fiction works and I’d love to read her letters too. I suspect I will re-read a number of her works over the coming years: Jacob’s Room, The Waves, Dalloway, Night and Day and my beloved To the Lighthouse which I could read and read and read again. If you haven’t yet discovered this marvelous woman’s writing, please do. 

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