editions: Penguin Hardback Modern Classics
Mrs. Dalloway – 5+ out of 5, 3/2-3/9
To the Lighthouse – 4.5 out of 5, 5/17-5/24
The Waves – 3.5 out of 5, 9/5-9/20
A Room of One’s Own / Three Guineas – 4 out of 5, 10/30-11/13
Orlando – 3.5 out of 5, 12/5-12/10
For the first time, I’ve hit an author in the Ten Year Catch-Up whose major works I have at least a passing familiarity with – and, for the first time, I would be re-reviewing something I’d already posted on the blog. In college, shortly after starting this site, I read Mrs. Dalloway – that review is here – and I have to admit: I was excited to return to it, this time with an eye towards expanding my understanding of Woolf as a writer. Combined with the fact that I was only reading five books this year (a result of the editions I was reading, which were a set of five, more than anything else), this felt like it would be a somewhat different year for the project.
How right I turned out to be, seeing as I legitimately struggled to pick up each of the Woolf volumes (except for Mrs. Dalloway, which kicked off the year). I thought, several times, that this might be the first year that I didn’t complete my own stated goal. Part of this had to do with some personal things (specifically a bout of strep throat + mono just as I started reading The Waves, an experience I’ll detail shortly) but part of it… I was nervous each time I went for a Woolf book. This, despite loving Mrs. Dalloway to the point that I raved on with Lev Grossman about how wonderful it is for the better part of an entire episode of So Many Damn Books. Although perhaps it was something to do with Lev’s comment to me that he never found any of her other work as accessible as Mrs. Dalloway – and whether or not I was influenced by his sage words, I have to say I felt the same.
People often talk about the experience of reading Virginia Woolf as something profoundly difficult, which also may’ve had something to do with my trepidation. This, however, feels like a cop-out: we’re inundated, these days, with books that push the form far further than Woolf ever could’ve imagined and while her writing can be rather dense and does require a certain amount of concentration, it’s not difficult to read so long as you’re willing to invest your brain in the endeavor.
Speaking of, the books themselves:
Mrs. Dalloway remains as wonderful as ever, although I found myself far more attuned to Septimus than I had the first time around. His presence in the novel still feels jarring compared to the altogether more mundane melancholy of the other characters, but I hadn’t yet been struck by depression when I first read this book. I wasn’t yet prepared to understand Septimus’ seemingly inexplicable sadness – and what I thought I understood about Clarissa, Peter, and Richard was only a glancing understanding at best. I was 21 years old, what the hell did I expect? I look forward to returning to this book again as I get older, quite likely several times, and seeing what fresh insights can be uncovered.
To the Lighthouse was a striking novel, although it did leave me cold at the end (whereas Dalloway touches my heart quite directly). The effect of the time jump is terrifically exciting and it shows Woolf’s keen eye for the understanding of how time affects people, often in small ways that then are magnified as the drift continues over the years. She leaves it to the reader to reconcile the two sets of characters and I think I found this book to be the most surprising (in how far it outstripped my expectations) by a long shot. I also felt particularly savvy when I read Among the Ten Thousand Things a short while later and saw exactly how Julia Pierpont was referencing Woolf.
The Waves was… well, The Waves was a lot. My old boss, when I told him it was approaching, gave me an appraising eye and said “…good luck.” And he’s not one to be cowed all that easily by ambitious literature. I started it over Labor Day weekend, not feeling so hot, and by the time the weekend was over I had a fever and swollen throat. The next week saw me pretty much confined to bed and episodes from the first four season of The West Wing (because I’ve seen them so many times that I didn’t need to focus and could still know what was going on). Over the following week’s recovery, I dipped back into the book – pun absolutely intended – and found that the overwhelming focus needed at the beginning maybe wasn’t actually so overwhelming. It’s definitely a challenging novel, with the rotating narrators who also move rather fluidly through time and space, but I found myself enjoying the challenge by the end – albeit from an academic standpoint as opposed to a purely enjoyable one. I was marveling at Woolf’s craft, but not swept away by it. Perhaps I never got a chance to truly crack the novel’s ambitious exterior, never going too far beyond a superficial read – although that might not be a bad thing.
A Room of One’s Own captivated me, from word one. I would’ve loved to’ve seen Woolf give the lecture that it was based on and her rhetorical style makes this a very different read from anything else by her. There’s something downright conversational about it, even as she gets far more fiery than any of her novels. The writing itself is masterful but it’s also her grappling with the issues that makes this a must-read for, well, everybody. I’d be surprised if any of the Republican presidential candidates had read it – but it ought to be required reading for anybody seeking not only public office but the life of an engaged, informed citizen. Three Guineas, the companion essay in this piece, is a thornier nut to crack – more fictional, less conversational, and a bit more scattered in terms of its ideas. It works as a counterpart to A Room of One’s Own and her thoughts on man’s desire for war (and the reality that women cannot stop war, only men can – by stopping their own violent desires) are certainly worth reading, but nowhere near as vital.
Finally, Orlando – which, I have to say, disappointed me. This was the first time out of the year’s worth of reading where I can say that a book fell short and I can’t quite figure out why. Perhaps I was too distracted with the year coming to a close – but I don’t think better focus would’ve redeemed the reading experience. Orlando is a very funny book, admittedly, and it was quite something to find out that Woolf could be playful just as well as she could be serious – but it also felt far more private than her other books, as though Vita was maybe the only one meant to read it. There was something in it that felt like a fairy story in the sense of stories told to (and often by) children, lacking traditional development and instead always moving forward with “and then, and then, and then”. Or maybe it’s just because I saw Sarah Ruhl’s excellent adaptation at Classic Stage Company many years ago, where Orlando was portrayed by the stunningly good Francesca Faridany and Ruhl’s magical touch helped streamline the story into something far more flowing. I wonder how I would’ve felt seeing the show after having read the book.
Conclusion: This year felt more like an academic version of this exercise than it ever has before, in that I feel like I’ve bettered my knowledge of the canon but not necessarily had the most fun in the actual reading. Virginia Woolf is, of course, one of the major game-changers in literature and even something as simple as seamlessly sliding from one point of view into another’s wouldn’t be so widespread were it not for the influence of Woolf at the time when she was writing. Plus, her feminist ideals are still valuable and as equally urgent today as they were a hundred years ago. But nothing managed to live up to the joys of Mrs. Dalloway and I suppose I (or more accurately Lev) was proved right in that nothing of hers really could. Still, I marvel at To the Lighthouse and The Waves as one might at a beautiful piece of art or an incredible building: it’s almost too big for you to truly take in, but you just have to let it wash over you and get whatever seems like you ought to be getting. Maybe that’s how we ought to be with all art, too.