“I simply adore Virginia Woolf”

Vita Sackville-West portrait

Have just read an excellent post (as ever) at Brain Pickings on How Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West Fell in Love.

Four days after their first meeting in December 1922, Virginia asked Vita to a small dinner party. Vita was enraptured, writing the next day to her husband Harold Nicolson (who also had same-sex relationships during their marriage):

I simply adore Virginia Woolf, and so would you. You would fall quite flat before her charm and personality… Mrs. Woolf is so simple: she does give the impression of something big. She is utterly unaffected: there are no outward adornments — she dresses quite atrociously. At first you think she is plain, then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her. She was smarter last night, that is to say, the woollen orange stockings were replaced by yellow silk ones, but she still wore the pumps. She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well.

Vita most clearly and famously inspired the writing of Orlando, elegantly characterised by Nigel Nicolson in Portrait of a Marriage (his biography of his parents) as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature.’

However, their growing friendship and intimacy over this period, during which Virginia Woolf was writing Mrs Dalloway, surely also informs the deeply sensual way in which Clarissa Dalloway seeks to understand and express how she has sometimes felt about women:

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores. Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. [ … ] But this question of love (she thought, putting her coat away), this falling in love with women. Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?

Image: Portrait (Detail) of Vita Sackville-West painted by William Strang, 1918.

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Time to celebrate Dallowayday

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Is Mrs Dalloway set on 13 June 1923, as argued by Harvena Richter (and later Elaine Showalter), or Wednesday 20th June as claimed by Morris Beja, or on an imaginary Wednesday in June 1923 as David Bradshaw asserts in his notes to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the book (citing a discrepancy in the references to Surrey cricket match results read by Septimus and, later, Peter Walsh)?

In the end, does it matter? Probably not, but I like Elaine Showalter’s suggestion in the Guardian of celebrating Dallowday, whether on the 13, 20th or another day ‘in the middle of June.’

Establishments in Bloomsbury (and beyond) are increasingly getting in on the Dalloway/Virginia Woolf act – for example the ‘Dalloway Terrace’ on Great Russell Street. The time is ripe for a day of literary celebration and putting Dallowayday ‘on the London summer calendar.’ A ‘Dalloway cocktail’ is sure to please, even if blazing heat may be off the menu.

Image: Advertising clock in Dalloway territory.

Virginia Woolf’s London

Another good article on the British Library website in their Discovering 20th century literature series, this one by David Bradshaw who is editor of the Oxford University Press edition of Mrs Dalloway.

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The article also includes links to many more digitised images of Virginia Woolf manuscript pages, including the travel notebook (a page from which above, © The Society of Authors) that she kept in her twenties in which she writes of her ‘longing’ for the city and the beauty of ‘a wet London street, with lamplight twisted on the pavement’.

Bradshaw quotes entries from VW’s diaries in 1916 (as above) and 1940 both expressing her abiding love for London and its noisy, busy streets thronged with people:

‘What shall I think of that[s] liberating & refreshing?’ Woolf wrote in her diary on 29 March 1940. ‘… The river. Say the Thames at London bridge; & buying a notebook; & then walking along the Strand & letting each face give me a buffet’

Just as Elizabeth Dalloway is uplifted by her excursion from Dalloway territory (of Westminster and Mayfair) into the City –

people busy about their activities, hands putting stone to stone, minds eternally occupied not with trivial chatterings … but with thoughts of ships, of business, of law, of administration and with it all so stately (she was in the Temple), gay (there was the river), pious (there was the Church) (p. 116).

Bradshaw writes well on the ambiguity of Clarissa Dalloway’s London, at once a source of elation (the ‘divine vitality’ of London life) but also a ‘gilded confinement’ – not even Clarissa any more … but Mrs Richard Dalloway.

Read the full article at the British Library website here.

Mrs Dalloway at the British Library

Exciting news that, amongst many other manuscripts of modernist works, the British Library has digitised the notebooks in which Virginia Woolf wrote the first draft of Mrs Dalloway.

Here, for example, the first page, with the famous first sentence and the working title of the novel, The Hours:

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There is also an excellent article on Mrs Dalloway and the use of stream of consciousness by Elaine Showalter, published on the British Library website. For example, here on the composition of Mrs Dalloway:

We know a lot about the composition of Mrs Dalloway between 1922 and 1924. Woolf’s holograph draft, called ‘The Hours’, is in the British Library, and her working notes are in the New York Public Library. She also treated the themes of the novel in an early group of short stories, collected as Mrs Dalloway’s Party, and discussed her writing process in her journal and letters. One central problem she faced was how to organise the flow of perceptions and memories; she did not want to have chapters with titles interrupting the illusion of a spontaneous stream of consciousness. She considered having a Greek chorus speak at intervals to sum everything up; she thought about dividing the text like the acts of a play. Finally, she decided to mark off sections with a double space; in the British edition published by the Hogarth Press, there are 12 spaces, like the hours on a clock. The striking of Big Ben further serves to punctuate the narrative. A central motif of the book is the analogy between the hours of the day and the female life cycle – what we would now call the biological clock. Woolf places Mrs Dalloway in the middle, and surrounds her with female characters ranging from 18 to over 80. As she was working on the various drafts, Woolf grew confident in her techniques and goals: ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice.’

and this on the party that concludes the novel:

Woolf had intended the party which ends the novel to express ‘life in every variety & and full of anticipation; while S. dies’. For Clarissa, it is a happy occasion. Re-meeting the prosperous mother of five who had long ago been the object of her schoolgirl crush, and talking to Peter Walsh, a restless immature man she might have married, she affirms the choices she has made. The guests who gather in her bright home come from an upper-class London society that includes the pompous, the frivolous, the narrow-minded and the snobbish, as well as some lost souls she has included out of kindness. Yet behind their decorous façades, Woolf shows us their hidden memories and troubled feelings, especially fears of ageing and death; and Clarissa senses the bravery of their performances. At the height of the party, she abruptly learns from Dr Bradshaw that one of his patients, a young soldier, had killed himself that afternoon. Shocked at the news, she retreats to a little room to meditate in solitude on the great unanswerable questions of meaning, mortality and purpose. She emerges with an understanding of the party as a life-affirming communal pageant. The internal changes Clarissa undergoes during her day mirror the transformations in her society. Despite its obsession with loneliness and death, Mrs Dalloway is a compassionate and optimistic novel, ending as it begins, with a tribute to endurance, survival, fellowship and joy.

Read the full article, with links to the digitised manuscripts, at the British Library website here.

Virginia Woolf and Code

This article was always going to jump out at me – To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf – given that currently I am working at a tech company, though not on the code yet. Doing the explaining and/or engaging. Ideally both.

Why Virginia Woolf? Well, actually, any literature will do. Or indeed any arts subject. That Virginia Woolf is chosen says something of her current iconic status – part of which clearly is as a writer about as far from the scientific method as you can get. Apparently.

‘…What does the brain matter,’ said Lady Rosseter, getting up, ‘compared with the heart?’ (Mrs Dalloway)

But of course it is not in either/or that the answer lies, but in both. And to underline his point the article’s author, J Bradford Hipps, deploys a quote from the most iconic figure of our current age:

How much better is the view of another Silicon Valley figure, who argued that “technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

His name? Steve Jobs.

Hello world

Finally, after breezing past several deadlines, Walking with Mrs Dalloway, my critical walking guide to Mrs Dalloway and Virginia Woolf will soon be available on Kindle.

Written in cafés around Cavendish Square during a work engagement in London, this guide charts my journey in and around the book.

Looking up as I write this, there is Andrea Illy’s mission statement on the wall to ‘delight all those who cherish the quality of life …  by our search for beauty in everything we do.’

Hopefully readers will find some of the beauty of its subject reflected in the pages of my work. Most of all I hope Walking with Mrs Dalloway and this blog will be a vehicle for engagement with other readers of Mrs Dalloway and the work of Virginia Woolf.

Mrs Dalloway cover web