Thursday 24th November
At one point in my life I became more than somewhat obsessed by Virginia Woolf and her writing; it was when I was most alone, after my Paris episode, when for a couple of years I felt I was living in some sort of a cupboard, just blanketing out most of what was going on around me, as some sort of self imposed penance. I devoured ‘The Voyage Out’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and then turned ‘To The Lighthouse’ and ‘Orlando’, but after reading ‘The Waves’ I had begun to run out of steam, and apart from reading ‘A Room of One’s Own’ a few years later I haven’t bothered to go back to her. I suppose I became Virginia-ed out, as they say nowadays.
She isn’t so very popular anymore, but you still find a few of her novels in Penguins in most semi-decent bookshops, so she is still read by some people, though I suspect that this may be more because they have to, on some English Literature course, than through pure choice. The whole Bloomsbury Group seems not to hold the fascination over the young that they used to in the sixties and seventies. We were introduced to them at school, by our Art teacher, old Jack Trodd, who came in three afternoons a week to take the older girls for ‘Art Appreciation’, which I found far more interesting than actually drawing or attempting to paint still-life bowls of fruit, which was what passed for Art at our school. He used to love to waffle on about different movements in Art, and was largely responsible for my initial interest in the Impressionists, and one day he got onto the subject of The Bloomsbury Set, a loose group of artists and writers and even an economist or two, who seemed to share ideas about Art, Literature and Society in general. They were incredibly influential in the late twenties and thirties, and I have kept up my interest in them over the years and still look out for new books about them. Virginia Woolf was probably the most famous writer in the Group, and certainly I enjoyed her work far more than say Lytton Strachey and in her own way she changed the very meaning of the idea of a novel. Before Virginia, novels tended to be fairly straight forward narratives with a beginning, a middle and an end, and some actual story to tell, but she seemed to create the whole book out of the consciousness of her characters and what they are feeling, drifting off on tangents of thought and sometimes losing the reader altogether, so that you had to backtrack and reread a few pages to work out what is maybe happening. But the writing is so beautiful, poetic and expressive without being at all soppy, especially Orlando, which tells the story of a boy who becomes a man over several centuries and lives without appearing to age significantly, even changing sex into a woman at one point. And of course Virginia was quite repressed sexually and apparently her marriage was open to the point of her having a long and passionate affair with another married woman Vita Sackville-West, possibly the great love of her life.
I am not sure why I became obsessed with her, if only for a relatively short time, possibly she was the sort of writer I always wanted to be, maybe I was just infatuated with the whole idea of this wealthy but liberated free-thinking woman being able to so freely express thoughts and emotions, while I was living my life at that time as a virtual recluse, of my own making I hasten to add, and so immersing myself in this alter-ego was some sort of substitute for actually living myself. And in a way, although I stopped reading her I have always been fascinated by her, as a person as much as a writer. Maybe you never do get over your early infatuations, with either people or writers, a part of them is still inside your head and your heart forever.