This Doesn’t Change the Fact that I Love Virginia Woolf

Some disparate thoughts:

In college, in one of the most influential classes I’ve ever had, the professor who would become my Mentor made a disparaging comment about “you know, the type of person who underlines a passage in a novel and writes beside it ‘irony.'”  Everyone else in the class laughed.  I chuckled along too, probably, but I was confused.  Was that a stupid thing to do?  Because I had done that plenty of times.  I was laughing at myself.

I’m not huge on writing in my books, but especially since then, I’ve refrained from making margin notes, unless it’s to paraphrase a paragraph in a theory book to help me remember it all better.  If I underline anything, it’s something I think is beautiful, or startling, or moving.  It’s something that has touched me, for whatever reason, as a reader.  So I have come to read viscerally, rather than cerebrally, as I stated in my last post, and I admit all of this unabashedly.

Here are some of the quotes I’ve underlined in my copy of Mrs. Dalloway:  

87 One cannot bring children into a world like this.  One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions, but only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that.

90 The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes.

146  He did not want to die.  Life was good.  The sun hot.

179 He had thrown himself from a window.  Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes.  There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness.  So she saw it.  But why had he done it?  And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!

I underlined a bunch of Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts, of course, but I underlined just about everything that has to do with the suicide of bewildered Septimus, the former who soldier who says things at once beautiful and crazed.

That is probably because the lines are so damn sad, and about as muddled and confused as they are vivid.  And also because I can only read anything written by Virginia Woolf as a modern reader, as someone who knows the hard fact that Woolf killed herself. So that any slight mention of suicide in her writing must be somehow foreshadowing, or inextricably linked, etc., with her own death.  (And of course this applies to all writers with such pained histories.  Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace come to mind.) It’s impossible to ignore the “author function” here, Mr. Foucault.  There is essentially no way for me to read a Woolf piece about suicide without thinking about Woolf’s biography.

So of course, in reading “A Room of One’s Own,” I was uncontrollably drawn to the Woolf’s descriptions of the impassioned, suicidal female would-be-poetess, Judith Shakespeare: “who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? — [Judith] killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside…” (1343)

I suspect that the popularity and influence of “A Room of One’s Own” throughout the years is because Woolf has created a totally female figure (Ms. Shakespeare, who is scorned for her literary ambitions and eventually made pregnant by a man who takes pity on her) who matches the masculine ideal of the solitary, romantic poet.  Judith Shakespeare dies young, her life tragic and stormy.  She is named Shakespeare but really, she could have been Keats – if someone had allowed her to actually write.  But her story is compelling precisely because it can be compared to that of the sad-male-poet-who-dies-young, precisely because we already have that classification of the author figure.

I suppose in this way, I find myself nodding along to Margaret Ezell’s critique of Woolf and the creation of the “female canon.”  In creating a suicidal fictional character to envision the experience of the literarily-minded Renaissance woman, rather than accept that other forms of female writing existed (letters, religious papers, advice books, etc.), Woolf seems to have prioritized a masculine image of the solitary, serious, impassioned writer.

At the same time, maybe Woolf prioritized this image because it’s the same one that she herself embodied, in both her life and death.

— Florentina

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