Woolf Tomes

It is midterms week, and I am swimming in exams to grade. So by all rights, I should be grading essays right now. But, then I opened my laptop and the Google doodle announced that it is Virginia Woolf’s 136th birthday. As a fan of her work, I must write instead of grade–at least until my battery runs out.

My first direct encounter with Woolf was reading Mrs. Dalloway. I cannot remember when exactly or what made me pick it up, but I do remember that it was not assigned reading for a course. This was something I read on my own. And, I was enthralled. Clarissa, Sally, Peter, they all seemed so real to me, I felt at once as if I were at the party and part of the preparations, and that I was eavesdropping on their private thoughts. And then there were Septimus and Lucrezia, such tragedy in their story. I wanted to help Septimus get the help he needed, tell him what his time didn’t know about PTSD, I wanted to help Lucrezia understand him. And how these two seemingly disparate stories were interwoven. Woolf was keenly aware of how people do not stay in their own lane all the time, but rather messily veer off and sideswipe unsuspecting occupants of another lane.

I had read Joyce’s Ulysses in graduate school, and I recognized in Mrs. Dalloway, the precursor to Molly’s grand, twenty-page, last sentence. I loved the way Woolf had us flow in and out of Clarissa’s mind and Septimus’s. This is what brings them so vividly to life. English major/English teacher geek that I am, I read up a little on critics’ thoughts of Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway. Many regard this her most accessible novel and warn of her increasing use of stream of consciousness in To the Lighthouse, some claiming Woolf had gone too far with that one, rendering the story nearly unintelligible. And I thought, “Challenge accepted” and bought a used copy.

I don’t know what those critics were thinking. To the Lighthouse blew me away. I loved it even better than Mrs. Dalloway if that’s possible. Mrs. Ramsay, her children, her husband, Lily Briscoe, Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay–what a tableaux they paint of the complexity and messiness of human relationships. Yes, the stream of consciousness is further developed here, but if those critics really could not follow the story, they do not deserve the position.

I have recommended Mrs. Dalloway to my students and keep a few copies on my bookshelf. I have taught at least sections of A Room of One’s Own, always urging the girls I teach to read it all. And I ask them, “Do you agree with Woolf that all a woman needs is ‘a room of her own and five hundred a year’ to be able to write?” And they answer this with varying degrees of insight.

Tonight I am sitting in the Starbuck’s in Penn Station–a loud, busy place–writing my blog, hardly a room of my own, and the woman next to me asked, “Are you writing a paper?”

“No,” I responded, “a blog post.”

“I coudn’t imagine writing here,” she said.

But hearkening back to my earlier post, we have to take those stolen moments when we can. Would I be more productive if I had ‘a room of [my] own and five hundred a year’? I would hope so. But for now, I’ll take my stolen moments and contemplate which Woolf tome to tackle next.

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