Thoughts on Virginia Woolf

Author: Jaacob Thomas

Just putting down a few thoughts and impressions garnered on Virginia Woolf.

Only very recently did it dawn upon me, that I must have had the late great Virginia Woolf on my mind for many years.

It all began years ago, during my attempt to read and make some sense of, Edward Albee’s famous play ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’. I really can’t say how I’d gotten hold of it. The only memories I have of that futile venture, are the numerous attempts I’d made, over the weeks and months, trying to get at the essence of it. Well, the long and the short of it was : I never did succeed.It struck me as being very strange and abstruse play to say the very least. Very likely, a proper understanding and appreciation of it, called for far higher levels of maturity and a far greater depth of experience than I possessed at the time, as a lad barely past 16, whose only exposure to literature had, thus far, been limited to comics and schoolboy adventure stories. Regrettably, the entire episode seemed to have instilled in me a deep seated, vague and irrational fear of Virginia Woolf – whom I began to perceive as a formidable, thoroughly daunting persona.

There the matter lay for years, simmering at the back of my consciousness, till a chance event, totally unrelated on the face of it – brought it once again to the fore.

While rummaging through some papers in a disused cupboard at home, I came across a book of memoirs written by my mother’s old school Headmistress, an English lady of noble birth, a great niece of an earlier Lord Abinger. This lady, a Ms.Hester Smith, had spent most of her life in South India as a missionary. In writing about her earliest days in India, she gives a rather vivid portrayal of the lady who had initially taken her under her wing. This lady mentor of hers, a Ms. Dorothy Stephenson, had already been in Madras for several years, working as a missionary. Ms. Smith describes Ms. Stephenson as being a very formidable, no nonsense individual – and a far cry from the rather retreating personality of her younger first cousin, Virginia Woolf. It was only then that I began to see Ms. Woolf in a very different light : much more gentle and soft – certainly far removed from my earlier,long- harboured perception of her, as a stern, truly formidable individual.

Then, more recently, I saw a movie called The Hours . The most poignant parts have to do with certain incidents in Virginia Woolf’s life. The film revealed a little known side of her: as a woman racked by savage bouts of deep depression, who had made at least one attempt to take her own life. It was especially touching to see how, through it all, she had been truly loved and cared for by her husband. The final scene is haunting and tragic. ‘She is shown walking to her death, the swirling waters of the swiftly-flowing river close over her head and she disappears forever. In the background one hears her voice, as though she were hovering over the scene, reading out her suicide note ..ending with the lines ‘one loves ?then one lets go ..’

A week or so back, while browsing through some books on a shelf, I came upon a title that seemed familiar : Virginia Woolf?s classic experimental novel ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. Picking it off the shelves I settled down to read it, certain that it would prove a delightful read and an immensely pleasurable experience and one that would linger on in memory. My hopes in this regard certainly weren’t belied – though for entirely different reasons. The whole thing, interior monologues and all – went clean over my head. (I am certain I would find Andrew Wiles recent proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem as incomprehensible. In no way of course, could any of this detract,even a whit, from the monumental quality of either work.)I found myself gritting my teeth and straining every fibre of my being, in order to plod my way through this book. I do realize that what I am saying may well sound outrageously heretical – but the book, quite simply, left me cold. Right through, comparisons with another work from the same period kept running through my mind : Vita Sackville West’s ‘All Passion Spent’ – which had struck a deep chord within me , at the time I’d read it .

Shortly thereafter, as my luck would have it, I chanced upon a little essay Virginia Woolf had written shortly before her death : ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’. Rarely have I come across a more exquisite piece of writing . I can’t even begin to describe the effect it had on me – how it tugged at my heartstrings.

Certain lines are timeless and speak across the ages and ring true now, even as they did then : ‘we must help the young Englishmen to root out from themselves the love of medals and decorations. We must create more honourable activities for those who try to conquer in themselves their fighting instinct, their sub-conscious Hitlerism..’

And again, reminiscing on the time of Peace just gone by – perhaps never to return – she writes : ‘ reaches out to the memory of other Augusts?.friends? voices come back. Scraps of poetry return..’

I could not help but contrast it with another very powerful piece of writing – also written during the height of the War : Saint Exupery’s ‘Letter to General X’, found among his papers after his mysterious disappearance. In the one by Virginia Woolf, Hope shines through, like a little beacon sputtering fitfully in the darkness. Whereas Saint Exupery writes – his tragic, haunting words pouring out from the depths of the very deepest, darkest despair: ‘ does not matter to me that I may be killed in this war. Of all that I have loved, what will remain? I am speaking not only of people but of customs, of irreplaceable modulations, of a certain spiritual light, of lunch under the olive trees on a farm in Provence, of Handel. The things that will survive I don?t give a damn about.’

I now have before me a copy of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’. The blurbs proclaim that this particular work of hers is a fictional incarnation based on the life of her great friend Vita Sackville-West, and is truly ‘fantastic and evocative’. I now look forward to settling down to read it – with heightened pleasure and anticipation – and have no doubt that, to my mind at least, this may well turn out to be her magnum opus.