As so often with my literary icons I'd heard of Virginia Woolf before I read her. My first proper contact with her came, aged 16, during the third week of Sixth Form when we'd raced through Chaucer, Marlowe, Marvell and the Brontes during our mini tour of English Literature and alighted on the modernists. We were presented with - and I can remember this vividly - pages two and three of To the Lighthouse and were instructed to get our pens out and start circling parts of the narrative that struck us as 'unusual'. What we were being asked to do in reality was to point out the slippage between narrator and narratee, asked to flag up the death of the omniscient guiding voice so beloved of that great institution - the 19th century novel. So my initial encounter was, curiously, without the spectre of 'Virginia Woolf' hanging over me. It wasn't until the great 20th century reading list came rattling through my letterbox in the winter of 2001 that Woolf captured my attention again. But something must have remained from that initial encounter, a spark that hadn't quite been extinguished, because To the Lighthouse became the first of the books from that unwieldy list that I began.
When I'd finished TtL, I wanted more. I'm not sure I understood the reasoning behind it but I knew that I did. In the next three days I hoovered up Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and, most breathlessly of all The Waves. My head, never one to fight against emersion in an author, was teeming with Woolf.
Which does lead to the question - why Woolf? What about her moved me in a manner which few other writers have? After all she is difficult, famously limited in terms of characters' class and background and more than a little prone to flights of fancy that - in poetry - have scared me something chronic. Sometimes when you read her, even I yearn for a chair to be a chair, stable, solid, something to hold on to in the unfixed world she presents. But Woolf rarely gives you this comfort. I, who have read and re-read, combed the short stories, the essays, the diaries, the novels am more aware of her flaws than most. Of all the things - and there are a lot of them - that don't work.
And yet it would not be a lie to say that, in many ways, since that initial flush of reading, Woolf has haunted me. I had a running joke for a while during my year as a Fresher that, writing wise if not stick head in oven wise, I wanted to be Sylvia Plath when in reality I was Helen Fielding. It would have probably come closer to the point to say that I wanted to be Woolf. That I want to be Woolf.
In her writing Woolf has an uncanny ability to take something seemingly ordinary and turn it into something utterly beautiful. She can flick and twist and fly with words in a manner which no other writer I have ever read does. Who else could turn the sounds of the First World War into the painfully human noise of women beating their carpets? Or sum up loss through a pair of arms groping in the dark? Or express eternity through the mooing of a cow? And whilst I'm on the cow, it should be said that Woolf is funny. Laugh out loud funny at times. Her description of TS Eliot as a "cockroach" on his return to England after having left his wife is brilliant in its sheer acidity. But more than that, of everything that sticks out in my mind about Woolf, is her ability to capture joy on the page. Which may seem something of an oddity that the poor, half mad, tragic Woolf of popular perception should have this as her outstanding talent. But she does. At her best she can capture a moment and make your heart leap. And if there is one thing that I wish I could take from her, it would be the ability to do this.
Maybe as a blogger it shouldn't come as a surprise that some of my favourite moments of her writing come in her diaries. Indeed if I were told I could only read one aspect of Woolf for the rest of my life then it would be the sprawling diaries, that at once tell you everything and nothing about Woolf. Don't get me wrong, I'd pine horribly for Bernard facing life and death at the end of The Waves and would be rather upset never to have my feet trip after Mrs Dalloway through the bustle and buzz of London, or stand with Lily at the culmination of her painting. But somehow I suspect I'd get everything I need from the diaries:
Then on to Figaro at the old Vic. It's perfectly lovely; breaking from one beauty into another, & so romantic as well as witty - the perfection of music, & vindication of opera.
On Sunday we heard of Cecil's death, & Philip's wounds.
We walked along the river in the afternoon, when L. came back from Staines, & came to an old hollow elm tree, in the sawdust of which someone so we guessed, had struck a match. The wind was blowing in, & soon the flames were running high. A crowd stopped.[...]The tree burnt rather beautifully; we called at the police office & told them, in case the fire might run along by means of bushes to other trees. Leonard's cold very bad - a horrid nuisance
There is little I can say other than that - for reasons I can't quite quantify - it's one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I've ever read.
If you're wondering if there's a reason to this extended moment of Woolf-love - though, as you should guess I never need an excuse to praise Ginny - then it is due to the date. For today would have been Ginny's birthday. She'd be 124 mind you, so the candles would be a bit of an issue. Regardless, happy birthday Ginny; it's a privilege to have known even 1% of you.