Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

Suspended Fog

“Indeed it is a difficult business—this timekeeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts”
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando (174)

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One of the most wonderful qualities of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is the manner in which she handles, moves, and manipulates time. Perhaps because I took an unusually long time to read this book I was particularly sensitive to that facet. These past few months in the novel of my life I have felt a similar effect of time twisting back on itself, restlessly running ahead, and then suspended in a fog of deep introspection. I suppose I was strangely in synch with Orlando’s odd tale which Woolf relates in a marvelously natural and nonchalant way.

“We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts. Thoughts are divine etc.” (101)

It is the “etc” that charms. While there is something slightly chilly in Woolf’s writing that keeps her at a bit of a distance from me, I love her playful sense of humor and understatedness.

“And as the first question had not been settled—What is Love?—back it would come at the least provocation or none, and hustle Books or Metaphors or What one lives for into the margin, there to wait till they saw their chance to rush into the field again” (59).

After all, we share similar concerns and unrelenting questions. And while of course I mean Love, of course I mean other concerns as well, but really I mean Love.

Here she took up lodging and began instantly to look about her for what she had come in search of—that is to say, life and a lover (110).

I’m sure I am not giving anything away to say that her search was formally his search in the infamous plot twist of the novel. And yet, true to Woolf’s gift for writing, Orlando’s barely registered bemusement at his sudden change of sex makes perfect sense in the context of being a human being confined to one’s own life. What is there to be confused about? We are what we are, we have no way of knowing any other way of being, and so these details hardly merit notice. Save your passion and angst for the rest of it:

Hail! natural desire! Hail! happiness! divine happiness! and pleasure of all sorts, flowers and wine, though one fades and the other intoxicates; and half-crown tickets out of London on Saturdays, and singing in dark chapel hymns about death, and anything, anything that interrupts and confounds the tapping of typewriters and filing of letters and forging links and chains, binding the Empire together” (167).

Save your passion for Life and Love.

 

 

 

The Echo

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I was sitting at my desk yesterday with no work to do, so I did what I always do— picked up a book. The sort of job I have is the sort of job where a book such as Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron with introductions by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry is laying at arms reach. It’s quite wonderful.

It was impossible, they found, not to love that “genial, ardent, and generous” woman, who had “a power of loving which I have never seen exceeded and an equal determination to be loved”  (4).

Woolf’s introduction is a short biography of the fascinating character of Cameron. Born in India to “the biggest liar in India” as her father was called, and who eventually, spectacularly drank himself to death, and to a French mother who was the daughter of one of Marie Antoinette’s pages, Julia Margaret Cameron was a famously eccentric and lovable woman. Woolf tells a wonderful story of the perils of rejecting Cameron’s generosity: she was fond of giving shawls as gifts and if they were not wanted she would threaten to throw them in the fire, but if they were returned, she would sell them and use the money to purchase a an expensive invalid bed for the local hospital—donated in the name of the person who had rejected the shawl, naturally! much to the surprise of the bemused shawl-rejector cum donor. Better to “submit to the shawl,” as Woolf delightfully relates the tale.

She wrote letters till the postman left, and then began her postscripts. She sent the gardener after the postman, the gardener’s boy after the gardener, the donkey galloping all the way to Yarmouth after the gardener’s boy. Sitting at Wandsworth Station she wrote page after page to Alfred Tennyson until “as I was folding your letter came the screams of the train, and then the yells of the porters with the threat that the train would not wait for me,” so that she had to thrust the document into strange hands and run down the steps (4).

I’m sure I would have loved her as well. She didn’t begin to take photographs until her son gave her a camera when she was fifty years old—that is the sort of detail that always encourages me. And what beautiful photographs they were.

Sir Henry Taylor, Plate 12

Sir Henry Taylor, Plate 12

But it was “The Echo,” plate 21, that caught my heart in my throat. To think of Echo—who bore the brunt of Hera’s jealousy and was thereby helpless to do anything other than repeat the last words spoken to her causing her to tragically lose her love, Narcissus—and to see how Cameron’s photograph perfectly captures that muted love, is heartbreaking on a gray day such as this one.

As for Cameron, she seems to have had a happy life. Her marriage to the philosopher and jurist Charles Hay Cameron was of seeming felicity. I love everything about Woolf’s version of events and hope it was all true. Woolf ends the essay in such a way that I can hardly be in doubt:

The birds were fluttering in and out of the open door; the photographs were tumbling over the tables; and, lying before a large open window Mrs. Cameron saw the stars shining, breathed the one word “Beautiful,” and so died” (5).

Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
– 
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.

The Sedulous Farrago of a Woman’s Mind

However, the majority of women are neither harlots nor courtesans; nor do they sit clasping pug dogs to dusty velvet all through the summer afternoon. But what do they do then?  –Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (88)

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The well-known first few lines of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, sum up her thesis neatly; she declares that a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to write. Having come into a bit of money, Woolf was in a position of some authority to make these statements.  At nearly one hundred years distance, it offers a still (depressingly) prescient message.

There was another ten-shilling note in my purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath away – the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. (38)

Cash rules everything: that is as true for men as it is for women, however, we women simply have always been, and still are, the poorer half of society. I am, regrettably, neither an expert on having money, nor on having a room of one’s own. However, I wondered, as I read this rather brilliant little book, about that last point. Woolf spends a lot of time talking about the dearth of female literature, she adds odious quotes that would make most humans cringe, showing up the dumbest things a man is capable of saying on the subject of women and their intellectual capacities. She also clearly understands that the difference between men and women is potentially the all-important and wonderful thing.

It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? – (87)

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As women were slowly “allowed’ to write more than letters, and then to show their work publicly, one of the problems, according to Woolf  that presented, was the difficulty in writing about a world in which a person knows so little. Confined as these early female proto-writers were, their writing was limited. Much in the same way, she adds, that men knew, and therefore wrote, next to nothing (and nothing at all interesting) about the all-important female to female relationship- they simply had, historically, no idea what that entailed and so female characters were by and large relegated to the role of lover or femme fatale with some female relations thrown in. Imagine, she asks, if everything written by a man was stripped of its male to male friendships? I can’t even get past re-imagining  The Epic of Gilgamesh, so let’s not try…I do seem to recall a vitally important prostitute in that tale, yeah Virginia, point taken.

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But here I run into a slight problem. I get, theoretically, the whole room of one’s own thing, it sounds very nice. And yet, and yet…I believe this is one more of a piece. This is a man’s problem, not a woman’s. If a woman has money- which gives time; and confidence – which gives energy, a room is superfluous. Are we not the multi-tasking half of the sexes? It’s built in. Tend to children, roll the dough out, plan the dinner, read a book, jot down a brilliant thought, hang the clothes to dry, drive in circles taking kids to and from and back again to practices, friends, and libraries, and then sit down to write while answering homework questions and making plans for the week (you’ll notice it’s the having money part that would eliminate what many of us have to add in – doing all of the above for a minimum wage – a serious blow to both time and confidence). All this is done while the same writing-male sits in his room of his own. I’m not saying either is easy, or one easier, simply that a hermetic room of peace is not the key thing in a woman’s life. We don’t have time to be precious. Sorry, that came out wrong, what I meant to say is…it is possible…we have an innate capacity to hold a spoon in one hand and a pencil in another. We only needed to be respected for doing it- our way.

There are people whose charity embraces even the prune. (19)

All I’m saying is, don’t wait. The money problem is a definite problem, but if you are a woman, and you are waiting for a room of your own- it may be a long wait. You’re probably much more likely to get an hour snatched here and there with lots of workable minutes strung in between. As a client of mine, who gave me her delightfully underlined copy of A Room of One’s Own and was born years before it was even written,  always says- we must take what we can get. Although come to think of it, she had money and room, so…on second thought, I’m open to the experiment- someday!

My motives, let me admit, are partly selfish. Like most uneducated Englishwomen, I like reading – I like reading books in the bulk. (107)

Rhubarb Strawberry Pie

Rhubarb Strawberry Pie