It is not an overstatement to say that Virginia Woolf and I have had a somewhat turbulent relationship; from adoration, to despair, to overriding hatred, and then finally a return to understanding and adoration. It has however, been rather one-sided. Over the years, from the beginning of my A-levels to the present day, I have been bound to read a variety of Virginia Woolf’s works; To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own… and so forth. It was very rare that I picked up Woolf of my own freewill (in fact, I’m not sure it has ever happened… ) because I found her fiction somewhat challenging, and as I found with Jane Austen, I thought that nothing really happened. Nothing of any note, at least. Nothing quite as gripping as a Robert Ludlum thriller; I felt it was all rather dry, focussing on the tiniest possible events in the upper middle class, bourgeois world in which she lived. As tends to happen however, I changed my mind.
To begin with, I was fascinated by To the Lighthouse, because whilst I found the prose itself beautiful, I deemed the novel a nemesis of mine; the unclear narrative, and the stream of consciousness technique has never been a particular favourite, largely because I am of the opinion that stream of consciousness has its platform, for instance in dreams, and in speech; however not written on a page, without any external context. I found it simply too dense, too difficult to relate to; it challenges all the boundaries of everything that was literature before the technique, and it is similar to linguistic doodling; pretty, perhaps; even beautiful, but nevertheless, without any coherent structure, and lacking in refinement.
Orlando however was far more structured, however as tends to be the case with Virginia Woolf, some kind of boundary had to be pushed; in this case, it was the idea of gender. In the novel, the protagonist changes gender from a man to a woman, quite literally overnight; fundamentally however, she remains essentially the same in terms of person. I personally enjoyed Orlando, especially since it also includes a trip through the ages, over the course of Orlando’s life, from the Elizabethan Age to the 20th century. The protagonist is less a description of a person as opposed to a description of a persona; a symbolic representation of the fluidity of the concept of gender. For further information, Judith Butler’s essay on “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” is fascinating.
And so by the end of 2009, I was firmly against Virginia Woolf, and was seriously considering building a time machine so that I could have gone back, changed her mind about being an author, and subsequently saved myself the agony that was that particular essay. Fortunately this somewhat childish plan changed when I had to read A Room of One’s Own. For the first time, in any of Woolf’s writings, I found her engaging, even charming. The content of the essay was delicate; it suited the theme of feminism extremely well. As a result, I became a full-time lover of Virginia Woolf, abandoning the turbulence of our previous relationship.
An astonishing element of literature, and of one’s relationship with the author, is the fact that one work can open one’s eyes to the others; providing almost a key of understanding, and a different perspective. This of course questions Roland Barthes assertion that the author is dead; when a person forms their own perception of the author, and understands their background, education and ideas, this can open up the text to the reader. It can exist in its own right, however it can also be inaccessible in this way, and so understanding a biography is just one of the ways in which a text can be understood.
Overall then, I’ve fallen for Virginia Woolf. I’m feeling tempted to go back and revisit To the Lighthouse, to see if I appreciate the techniques a little more this time around; I suspect that everything could be understood with a little perseverance and the right sort of teaching. Everything except calculus, that is.