Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that


by Virginia Woolf

This is an odd book. Having read some Woolf before and knowing roughly what the storyline was I thought I knew what to expect, but it wasn’t really what I got. I ended up greatly enjoying it but though I found it clever and witty from the start, it took me a while – more than half the book – to actually like it.

How to explain the story? Orlando is born the son and heir to an aristocratic English family and becomes beloved courtier to Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I until his heart is broken by a Russian beauty, after which he sulks his way through the civil war and Restoration and then travels to Turkey to be the British Ambassador there to King Charles II, is made a duke, then falls asleep for a week and wakes up a woman, upon which she continues to have adventures up until the present day (or rather the present when the novel was written, back in 1928).

Notice the hinky timeline there? Orlando’s ability to live through centuries with minimal ageing (the narrative clearly states Orlando is 30 when he turns into a she about a third of the way through the novel, despite about a century having passed since the book’s opening scene, in which a 16-year-old Orlando alternates swordplay with writing poetry) isn’t directly addressed until quite late on, and it took me a little while to notice the historical clues to this fantastical thread. The switch in Orlando’s gender, on the other hand, is very directly dealt with, with comments on Orlando’s gender from page one.

“Orlando stared; trembled; turned hot; turned cold; longed to hurl himself through the summer air; to crush acorns beneath his feet…Whom had he loved, what had he loved, he asked himself in a tumult of emotion, until now?…Love had meant to him nothing but sawdust and cinders…as he looked the thickness of his blood melted; the ice turned to wine in his veins…he dived in deep water; he saw the flower of danger growing in a crevice…”

I can see how many an essay could be based on this book, there are so many interesting themes and details, from gender identity and sexuality, to Orlando’s attempts to be a patron of poets and a poet him/herself, to Woolf’s view of the changes in society over the centuries covered, and so much more besides. (It’s also apparently a fictionalised biography of Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had an affair and to whom the novel is dedicated, but I don’t know enough about the real-life history to have spotted this within the text myself.)

What struck me most was the tone of the book. It’s very satirical, almost brashly so, and this I felt kept me at a distance from the story, which was in stark contrast to my experience of Woolf’s other works. This meant I never got a handle on Orlando as a person but I did (eventually) grow to love the style and rhythm of the story.

“Once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing. And while this is bad enough in a poor man…the plight of a rich man, who has houses and cattle, maid-servants, asses and linen, and yet writes books, is pitiable in the extreme.”

There’s certainly no shortage of great lines. I had to stop using sticky notes to mark great quotes and start using a pencil, because there were so many but also because I found myself wanting to add little comments. I just wish I’d found a harder pencil as I’m having to squint a bit to read my faint scribbles!

While the genres the book satirises – picaresque adventure, historical biography, overblown romance – are as old as the novel, and while this is not written in Woolf’s familiar Modernist style, there are nevertheless modern touches. Woolf breaks the fourth wall by not only speaking direct to the reader and discussing the art of writing biography but even referencing specific page numbers (which are presumably carefully changed in every new edition) in a non-fiction fashion. And though for the most part the style is straight-faced biography, occasionally it turns abstract, nonlinear, in sections that are not exactly stream of consciousness but certainly owe their origin to Woolf’s mastery of that mode. Through Orlando’s own attempts to become a writer, Woolf pulls apart the literary style of every age since the Elizabethan but also mocks the literary critics of every age for preferring anything old over anything new.

“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.”

I think I liked the last part of the book best because it became more self-aware, discussing Orlando’s reactions to the changing times rather than time just passing unnoticed as it seemed to in the first part of the book. The satire gets particularly savage in the 19th century, perhaps exposing Woolf’s own prejudices, but this results in some of the book’s most delicious lines.

“Thus the British Empire came into existence; and thus – for there is no stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork – sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and little trifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten or twenty volumes.”

All of which did appeal to me, but I was still left wishing this had been more like Woolf’s other works. Perhaps (and I seem to find myself saying/writing this far too often) this is another book I need to re-read to fully appreciate. I definitely think I would get more from studying it – from having someone draw out the little details and historical background that I know I missed. Maybe I’ll search out a study guide before I pick it up again!

First published 1928 by the Hogarth Press.

Source: I bought this as part of a set of Penguin Red Classics several years ago, I think from a catalogue so probably the Book People?

Simple pleasures, elegantly phrased

Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid
by Virginia Woolf

This collection of essays in the Penguin Great Ideas series were originally published between 1925 and 1942 (a few being from a posthumous collection). I think I am growing to prefer Woolf’s essays to her fiction, which is probably some kind of heresy in a literature graduate, but these are truly beautiful pieces of writing.

The majority of these essays are about books, though there are a couple about the pleasures of walking in London, plus the titular essay which is literally what it says, though of course in Woolf’s inimitable style, full of imagination and passion and ideals. Woolf writes about how men are by nature inclined to war, and how women must help them to rise above such base instinct. Her politics creep in as she wonders whether, with more women in government and other high positions, there would be any war.

It is interesting to read an essay from the 1920s or 1930s pondering whether the fiction of the time stands up to the classics of the past, seeing what names are mentioned and whether they mean anything to me now, so many years later. Woolf suggests what will last will be “a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mere” (Yeats and de la Mere, yes, but Davies? I’m not sure who she means) and “Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness but hours of something very different” (assuming she means D H Lawrence then that is indeed one critics continue to argue over the “greatness” of) and “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, which may be my favourite opinion of that book!

There are several essays here in a slim little volume; each one short and self-contained. Woolf has a point to make but occasionally seems to change her mind halfway through, before concluding that the original question in fact has no clearcut answer. She is concise, intelligent and informed but her prose is still beautiful:

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit…?”

I do not always agree with Woolf’s arguments or conclusions. For instance, in “The art of biography” she states that biography was a late-18th century invention (wrong! though there was a major resurgence in the form at that time) and that it is a mistake to combine facts with fiction or speculation (I actually think this can lead to some remarkable writing, as long as it is made plain to the reader that it isn’t a straightforward history). But she argues her case so well that I don’t mind disagreeing.

The collection ends with “How should one read a book?”, in which Woolf says that there is no simple answer to that question, and then goes on to talk around the subject in what is, more than anything, a treatise on the joy of reading. I was intrigued by her comment about reading poetry, because I know a lot of avid readers avoid it – “the time to read poetry [is] when we are almost able to write it”. She talks about judging a book after having read it, whether we should be kind or harsh, and how the reader’s emotional response signifies a difference between them and the critic:

“Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics…to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible!…there is always a demon in us who whispers ‘I hate, I love’, and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate…”

I will definitely be looking out for more Woolf essay collections. Any recommendations?

This selection first published in 2009 by Penguin Books.

What women writers want

A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf

I was inspired to finally pick up this book by Amy Reads and her part in the Year of Feminist Classics project. It turns out, now I look at the reading schedule, that they’re not discussing this title until May, but I’d been meaning to read it for years anyway, and I can always go back and discuss it with them in three months’ time!

I’m so glad I finally read this book. It is truly brilliant. I struggled a little with the Woolf books I had to read for my degree, but this is actually a reworking of two speeches she gave at women’s colleges in October 1928 and therefore has a rather different style from her fiction. For me it was much more accessible and approaches the topic of feminism from an angle that I am very interested in – women and fiction.

Of course, Woolf being Woolf, she doesn’t approach the subject in an entirely straightforward manner. Instead she begins with her answer to a question as yet unvoiced and then invents the character of a woman writer to illustrate how she arrived at this answer, including all of the research and ruminating along the way. But bizarre as that sounds, it’s a fascinating and intelligent study of its subject with so many quotable passages that my copy is now covered in bright yellow sticky notes.

The conclusion of this extended essay is so famous that it is not only the title but is also repeated in red text on the front cover of my edition: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” These days that may seem like an odd statement but it’s worth remembering, as Woolf ably illustrates, that at the time of writing there were very few colleges in the UK that accepted female students and almost no scholarships or bursaries for them; women were not allowed in Oxbridge libraries unaccompanied, even if they were students there; a woman’s property and wealth legally became her husband’s upon marriage; and even upper class women were very unlikely to have a study or sitting room of their own.

“The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up [a newspaper] could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy.”

Woolf counts the four great women writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and George Eliot (which was interesting of itself to me, that 80 years ago the same names should have been considered “great” as now, or maybe we consider them great because we have been told they are for 80+ years) and looks carefully at how being a woman influenced each of them. In Jane Austen she sees the greatest influence of having had to write in a shared sitting room, as so much of Austen’s work is set in those very rooms, but she also bestows great praise on Austen for having such an honest, undeniably female voice. Charlotte Brontë, Woolf says, was a better wordsmith but also more given to expressing discontent with her lot in life, giving her heroines speeches about being held back from the world that jar with the rest of the novel.

Woolf finds women depicted by men, in fiction and non-fiction, wholly unsatisfactory, partly because men tend to depict women as hollow featureless objects but also because a lot of what they do show is unrealistic idealism. In truth, through most of history women have not been nearly as well educated or as wordly as men.

“A very queer composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history…some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”

Women depicting women, however, can actually do it properly, creating real personalities, likes, dislikes, good qualities and bad ones. Woolf describes her delight when reading, in a not particularly good book by a woman writer, about the friendship between two women – a subject she declares is at every woman’s heart and yet never depicted yet by any man. (She makes a few generalisations like this. I have to presume that, though reasonably well read, she had not read every book ever written and therefore an exception to this statement may well exist.)

In the face of such adversity, Woolf shows great admiration for those pre-20th-century women who did defy convention and write, even those who did it in secret, but especially those who published their work like Aphra Behn (another name I studied at university). She urges the women she is speaking to – women who have at least a little money, some education and most likely a room of their own – to continue this tradition, to find their own voice uninfluenced by men. She complains that her reading has become monotonous with so many men’s voices, so much male influence, and expresses a hope that the time will come when readers will think her rant out of date.

She closes with the sentiment that in “another century or so” women writers will have found their voice. I like to think that, while the gender equality fight is still very much on, in writing at least women have found an equal footing. I don’t know how the numbers compare of books published by men and women, or indeed books sold, or literary prizes won, and if they are even now it’s probably a very recent development, maybe even in the last ten years. But the world has changed drastically from the one Woolf knew and I like to think she would be proud of women today, especially women writers.

First published 1928.
I read the Penguin Great Ideas edition, published 2004.

UPDATE: If you’re interested, you can check out the Year of Feminist Classics discussions about this title here and here.