What Do I Really Think of Virginia Woolf?

Virginia Woolf

“What do I really think of Virginia Woolf?” I asked myself in 2018 during a snowstorm.

I asked myself, because the city was deserted. I was sitting in a nearly empty restaurant, reading The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf on an e-reader. I was happily perusing The Common Reader, On Being Ill, and The London Scene. That morning I had actually seen a portrait of Woolf at the nearly empty National Portrait Gallery.

I used to love everything about Virginia Woolf. In my twenties, I thought I’d never read anything more brilliant than Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. I do love most of her books. But in 2018 I went from ecstasy to disillusion and even disapproval while I read her partly-autobiographical second novel, Night and Day. I was irritated by the snobbery and classism, by the patronizing attitude of Katharine Hilbery, the patrician  heroine. To be fair, she does change during the novel. But I resolved that in future I would only read Woolf’s nonfiction, having a hunch her novels may not have been as astonishing as I’d thought.

Last week I overcame my petulance over her snobbishness during a breathless rereading of her vibrant novel, Between the Acts. Once my favorite book by Woolf, it was posthumously published in 1941. Although it is Modernist and experimental, it is entirely accessible to the common reader: the characters’ voices are seamlessly interwoven in a traditional narrative that highlights a domestic drama. And the history of England is commented on by a Greek chorus of villagers during a charming village pageant. The pageant is held on the grounds of Pointz Hall, owned by the Oliver family–for only 120 years.

Woolf knew a little about homespun theater, and the pageant reflects her experience. In 1922, she attended the rehearsal of a play by a women’s theater in London, which was written by a friend and directed by the famous Edy Craig. Woolf’s play, of course, has very different content: it is a history of England, told through verse, song, allegory and ribald dialogue. Like the play Woolf saw in London, this one is wirtten and directed by a woman, here the anxious Miss Latrobe. Woolf shares with us not only the comic performance of the play, but the reactions of the sharply-etched characters in the audience between the acts. In this odd novel, Woolf analyzes the subtle threads that bind the characters together, as the play portrays a changing England.

Poetry and verse permeate the narrative. We become well-acquainted with the central characters, the Oliver family, who live at Pointz Hall. Isa, the bored wife of Giles Oliver, secretly writes poetry, and walks around muttering verse to herself. Giles, a stockbroker who would have preferred to be a farmer, feels he has sacrificed everything to support the family, and is aware that Isa has a crush on someone else (it is, ironically, a gentleman farmer). And Giles is irritated when their wild neighbor, Mrs. Manresa, drops in for lunch with an unprepossing friend from London, William Dodge. Giles wonders, “What for does a good sort like the woman Manresa bring these half-breeds in her trail?”

The two older Olivers are as important in their way. Giles’s father Bartholomew laments the modern movement of history away from the civliization and etiquette of his youth; but his sister, the much more vivid Mrs. Swithin, sees the world from an entirely charming, whimsical perspective. In the following lyrical passage, we hear her thoughts about history.

But it was summer now. She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the daw like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake. Forced to listen, she had stretched for her favorite reading–an Outline of History–and had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the inguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

What a lovely book! And now I will reread Virginia Woolf. Yes, she is a snob, but she understood the changes in history, and recorded the changes as well as the feelings and thoughts of her characters. And so I now have both the fiction and nonfiction to read.

Virginia Woolf’s Niece & A Shelf Arrangement Diary

I am reading and loving The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Five, 1936-1945.  In college I read A Writer’s Diary, edited by Leonard Woolf, and admired this short fascinating volume.  She writes so elegantly:  she could make a notebook of scribbled website urls look interesting.  Thus I must share an amusing quotation from an entry which mentions my favorite book, War and Peace.

On January 11, 1936, Woolf recorded her niece’s short visit.  “Ann popped in suddenly after lunch; bare legs, socks, tousled hair; wanted to borrow the second vol. of War & Peace for Judith who’s had her tonsils out.”

Do nieces read War and Peace these days?  Perhaps secretly. At my house a visit from a niece would go more like this:  “Ann popped in suddenly after lunch; patched jeans, no socks, disheveled hair; wanted to borrow Peyton Place because she needed a trashy read after a chemistry midterm.”

Peyton Place, War and Peace–same number of syllables–I must be a genius!

I gave away two of my four copies of War and Peace, my favorite novel, because they were oversized and hurt my wrists to hold!

MY SHELF ARRANGEMENT DIARY!

Speaking of diaries, here is a Diary of a Shelf Arranger.

Years ago all my books fit in one bookcase.

Then my husband and  I “colonized” a run-down neighborhood by buying a cheap house.  The house was big and cold, and we wore jackets and fingerless gloves inside, but at least we had room for books.  In our love of collecting books, we drove all over the midwest and haunted used bookstores (including The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City) , library sales (we once went to one in Winona, Minnesota), and Borders everywhere.  All those old library books with mylar covers and tacky stickers on the spine!  And a copy of Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger for 50% off!

Years later, we have so many books.  And most have that  “worn-out old-book” look because they were already ancient when we bought them.

So should I arrange them in the style of  favorite used bookstores?  Or would that be too formal  for home life?

Here are a couple of methods I’m considering:

1. Shelf all the Folio Society books together (they do this at Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha).  The FS volumes are tall and oversized and look better together.   But if I put them together, I’ll break up my Thomas Hardy collection. Turns out I have the FS version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, illustrated with woodcuts by Peter Reddick. Did I buy it at  Jackson Street Booksellers?  I’d forgotten I had it.  I also have a Modern Library paperback of Tess, a 1950s Heritage Press edition with illustrations, and a Penguin Hardcover Classic.

Should I start a separate Tess section?

2. Create a Thomas Hardy section.  I HAD NO IDEA WE HAD SO MUCH THOMAS HARDY UNTIL I SHELVED ALL OUR BOOKS. A Penguin paperback and an Everyman’s Library hardback of The Woodlanders;  two Signets (one my husband’s) and an Oxford paperback of Jude the Obscure; three paperback copies and a Heritage Press hardback of my favorite, The Master of Casterbridge; Selected Poems and Collected Poems; and a few  Pocket Book collections of short stories with minuscule print  We also have a battered copy of The Well-Beloved holding up one of our windows.

3.  If I Create a Thomas Hardy section, I have to create a Dickens section, a Jane Austen section, a John Updike section, etc. 

4.  But wouldn’t it be better to go by centuries?  Shakespeare and Milton, 18th century, first half of 19th century, second half of 19th century, first half of 20th century, etc.  That’s the way I think of books–in terms of centuries!

5.  Put all the Library of America editions together.  That probably wouldn’t work, though.  I don’t have that many.

 I haven’t implemented any of these yet.   Any suggestions?  After I shelve them, I want to catalogue them…on index cards.