Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Virginia Woolf scores an equaliser

Jacob's roomAnd with that title, ladies and gentlemen, I have exhausted my sporting terminology. I hope it’s clear what it means; I recently read my friend and fellow-fox’s blog post about Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf (Bennett 1: Woolf: 0) and thought, since Virginia Woolf is a few decades too dead for her right of reply, I’d stand up for my homegirl.

Virginia Woolf’s novels are often seen as the reserve of the professional academic, not for the common reader (although Woolf, of course, termed herself the common reader – after Samuel Johnson’s concept – for a couple of essay collections).  I was quite pleased, then, to see that someone with the enviable academic credentials Kate has under her belt fail to enjoy reading Jacob’s Room, if only because it seems to me to be a sort of proof by contradiction.  If a learned type can dislike Woolf, then surely the everyman can like her?  I fall between these two stools, I imagine, but am unabashed in my love for our Ginny’s novels – both to study, and to curl up with by the fire, mug of hot chocolate in hand.

But before I defend her, I will acknowledge the faults in Jacob’s Room.  It is not the assured success of To The Lighthouse.  It is not 100% perfectly executed; characters appear and disappear with little warning.  The odd page could be lost without any weeping or gnashing of teeth on my part.  But what separates it from other 1920s novels – full disclosure; I’ve read no Bennett, but I’ve read many of his ilk and loved them – isn’t so much a fault as an approach.  Kate is quite right, of course, that Jacob’s Room is all experimental impressionistic narrative.  Woolf couldn’t write a rattling good yarn if her life depended on it.  But beautiful, unexpected, and experimental language can be – Woolf proves to me, at least, in Jacob’s Room – a reader’s delight.  Here is a passage after Jacob’s widowed mother, Mrs Flanders, has had an offer of marriage:

‘Dear Mr Floyd,’ she wrote. – ‘Did I forget about the cheese?’ she wondered, laying down her pen.  No, she had told Rebecca that the cheese was in the hall.  I am much surprised…’ she wrote. But the letter which Mr Floyd found on the table when he got up early next morning did not begin ‘I am much surprised,’ and it was such a motherly, respectful, inconsequent, regretful letter that he kept it for many years; long after his marriage with Miss Wimbush, of Andover; long after he had left the village.  For he asked for a parish in Sheffield, which was given him; and, sending for Archer, Jacob, and John to say good-bye, he told them to choose whatever they liked in his study to remember him by. Archer chose a paper-knife, because he did not like to choose anything too good; Jacob chose the works of Byron in one volume; John, who was still too young to make a proper choice, chose Mr Floyd’s kitten, which his brothers thought an absurd choice, but Mr Floyd upheld him when he said: ‘It has fur like you’.

Why did I pick that passage?  Well, partly because it has a kitten, yes.  But I could have picked almost any passage, and loved the way that Woolf dips and dives, flitting through time and emotions and different characters.  It is difficult to praise Woolf without sounding pretentious.  But why should one reader’s pleasure be more pretentious than another’s?  I do not lean back, smoking a pipe, sipping port, and thinking myself a fine fellow when I immerse myself joyfully in Jacob’s Room (or Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse or Between The Acts).  I do it with the same level of happiness (albeit a different variety) that I feel when reading Agatha Christie or E. Nesbit or, Heaven help me, books about anthropomorphic kittens.

Unlike those books, I do not love Woolf for plot, or even primarily for character (although she is brilliant at that); I read her for language. See, I told you I’d sound pretentious.  But I do just dive in, letting Woolf’s use of words wash over me, loving every moment in the hands of a craftsman (craftswoman) of genius.  And, oh, there is humour too!  Never let anybody tell you that Woolf is not humorous – now, whether or not you share her sense of humour is another question.

‘I never pity the dead,’ said Mrs Jarvis, shifting the cushion at her back, and clasping her hands behind her head.  Betty Flanders did not hear, for her scissors made so much noise on the table.

‘They are at rest,’ said Mrs Jarvis. ‘And we spend our days doing foolish things without knowing why.’

Mrs Jarvis was not liked in the village.

To me, that wry cause/effect observation would not be out of place in E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady novels, although it would be phrased differently.

And I’ve not even said what Jacob’s Room is about.  Kate covered it in her post, really.  It is the life of Jacob, from childhood to death, and it is not a spectacular life.  He is an ordinary child; he is an ordinary self-aggrandising student; his beliefs and aspirations and reflections are beautifully told, but fundamentally normal for a man of his intellect, class, and time.  But it is not a clear or straightforward portrait; it is a life told as though documenting the rippling reflections in a river.  Beautiful sentences evoke images which are unsettled and fluid (yes, still sounding pretentious) and it is a reading experience unparalleled by any other author I’ve read.  It is not a question of the reader’s intellect or even the novel’s enjoyability; it is a question of the reader’s patience with such techniques.  Some people love it; some cannot see how anybody ever could.

Bennett 1: Woolf 1.  For now, let’s call it a draw.

Virginia Woolf: Jacob’s Room. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 reprint. 270pp

ISBN: 9780199536580

Simon blogs about Woolf, kittens, and everything in between at Stuck-in-a-Book.

6 comments on “Virginia Woolf scores an equaliser

  1. David Boyd
    November 18, 2013

    Years ago, had some considerable dealings at work with a guy in an associated company in Pittsburgh USA who luxuriated in the name of Brad Woolf.

    To my obviously – puerile mind and calling when he wasn’t there, he was always the Big Brad Woolf…..

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings
    November 18, 2013

    Bravo Simon! Wonderful and spirited defence of Woolf and I agree – it is the beauty of her language, her ability to captured the random, flickering nature of thought that makes her such a powerful writer. She is unique too, and I’ve never really recovered from my first reading of her work (Mrs. Dalloway) – it was quite exhilarating and like nothing else I’d ever read!

  3. Jackie
    November 18, 2013

    Enjoyed this review, especially with all the humor. I don’t know if I’d heard of this book before Kate’s review, though I’ve read other Woolf books. You’ve piqued my interest with this rejoinder. The last excerpt reminded me of Peter Carey, which startled me.
    I almost think that one has to be in a certain frame of mind to read Woolf. I had my own eye-opening experience with “Lighthouse” as I wrote about for VL a couple years ago

  4. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)
    November 18, 2013

    David – but of course! What else could you have done? 😉

    Karen – thank you! For those of us who enjoy her, she really has no equal – the experience of reading Mrs Dalloway (my first too, when I was 17) has certainly stood me in good stead.

    Jackie – thanks Jackie – I’d love to know your thoughts when/if you try Jacob’s Room, and I loved your post on TTL.

  5. Hilary
    November 19, 2013

    Clever Simon Stuck-in-a-book! Perfect choices of passages to illustrate your argument and make me determined to a) break my Virginia Woolf duck (huh – those sporting terms are catching) and b) read Jacob’s Room, of which I had never heard until now. I’ve always regarded VW as impenetrably difficult, and it is so helpful to consider what to look for (and what not to expect) before reading her work. Thank you!

  6. Paula Maggio
    November 30, 2013

    Reblogged this on Blogging Woolf.

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This entry was posted on November 18, 2013 by in Entries by Simon, Fiction: 20th Century and tagged , , .



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