Julia Briggs – An Inner Life

Two days ago I got a question:

Have you read Julia Briggs’ biography on Woolf – An Inner Life?

- to which I had to reply: no. But now I have … well not the whole of it yet – but I definitively will! Briggs is a clear and talented narrator, and she offers clever insights into both Woolf and her work.

Godrevy lighthouse (Cornwall) is said to have inspired Virginia Woolf to write To the Lighthouse  - though in the book, she locates the lighthouse in the Hebrides. The lighthouse’s visitor book contains the signature of Virginia Stephen (Woolf). She first visited on 12 September 1892

If you follow my blog on a regular basis you might remember that I wrote a post under the heading “Theory of Mind”, where I tried to discuss the complexity of the characters inner-life in To the Lighthouse. Here is Briggs on Woolf’s way of creating the subjectivity of human beings:

In daily life she (Woolf) was as capable as the next person of ignoring the selfhood of others, but within her fiction, she encourages her readers to extend their sympathies through the use of the imagination, deliberately writing in the tradition of George Eliot, who believed that “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”. Both writers share a tradition of women’s writing in which moral awareness carries the reader across the boundaries of gender, class and race in the interest of wider sympathy and understanding.

Historic Print of Godrevy Island, position: 
50 14′.549 N 005 24′.015 W (not for navigation purposes)

Godrevy Island is situated 3½ miles across St.Ives Bay, where rugged cliffs rise from the sea. Gulls, oyster-catchers and pipits make their homes on the island, which is partly covered with grass, as it slopes down to the sea. In springtime, carpets of brightly coloured primroses, sea thrift and heather bring beauty to the scene, for although the island is close to the mainland, it is open to the full force of Atlantic gales. A dangerous reef extends outwards towards St.Ives, called the Stones and on this many vessels have come to grief.

After a black day


After a black day, I play Haydn,

and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.

The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists

and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets

and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:

“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;

rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house

but every pane of glass is still whole.

Tomas Tranströmer (1931) Swedish poet.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2011 is awarded to Tomas Tranströmer “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality”

I’ve always found poetry to be rather difficult to read. But through reading Woolf it is as if my awareness of words as pictures and rhythm is growing, and with this awareness I find a totally new pleasure in reading poems. But poetry demand a knowledge of words which makes it more difficult to read in a foreign language, I read Tranströmer in Swedish, or Norwegian – my mother tongue.

Great Expectations

Just the other day Sophie, of Live, Love & Learn, had a nice post on Woolf. In her post Sophie mentioned Alexandra Harris’s biography Virginia Woolf, which I (no surprise…) got very curious about.

So I ordered it.

(If this Woolf obsession of mine will continue, I really have to try to cleared another meter or two in my already overloaded bookshelf …)

Yesterday Blogging Woolf had a note on the same book, with the link to a review.

My expectation of Harris’s book is growing steadily, day by day … Have you read it?

Bloomsbury Pictures

I am, as some of you know, teaching art history & theory, but I have never focused on British art, and never really considered Virginia Woolf’s relation to her contemporary visual artists. But now its time  -

Duncan Grant: Study for Composition (Self-Portrait in a Turban), 1910

I received two books in my mailbox today:

Bloomsbury Portraits By Richard Shone & The Art of Bloomsbury:
Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant By Richard Shone
With essays by James Beechey and Richard Morphet

Bloomsbury Portraits, originally published in 1976, was the first book to look at the contribution of the painters of the group, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and Duncan Grant (1885-1978), not only within the context of Bloomsbury but also from the wider perspective of modern British art.

The Art of Bloomsbury:
Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant is a catalogue, published to accompany a major international exhibition of the Bloomsbury painters originating at the Tate Gallery in London (1999).

Duncan Grant: Self-Portrait, 1910

I have just started flickering through the books, they are both filled with pictures. To give an idea of what I’m looking at I have posted two self-portraits by Duncan Grant. Look at the intensity in his eyes.

Oh, I already know I will spend hours with these books …

Theory of Mind

Midway (through) To the Lighthouse it suddenly struck me how extremely well Woolf present us for the complexity of peoples inner life. Of corse we all know her exceptional contribution to the stream of consciousness technique.

(Stream of consciousness is characterized by a flow of thoughts and images, which may not always appear to have a coherent structure or cohesion. Stream of consciousness depict the continuous flow of sense‐perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories in the human mind).

Woolf is an expert in stream of consciousness, but there is even more: She is not only displaying her characters inner life, she is also capturing how people understand one-another, and how this understanding is constantly shifting through tacit communication & explicit dialogues.

It suddenly struck me as a good idea to read her characters in the light of Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.

To the Lighthouse, chapter 17

But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it. “William, sit by me,” she said. “Lily,” she said, wearily, “over there.” They had that — Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle — she, only this — an infinitely long table and plates and knives. At the far end was her husband, sitting down, all in a heap, frowning. What at? She did not know. She did not mind. She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him. She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything, …

… They were talking about wages and unemployment. The young man was abusing the government. William Bankes, thinking what a relief it was to catch on to something of this sort when private life was disagreeable, heard him say something about “one of the most scandalous acts of the present government.” Lily was listening; Mrs Ramsay was listening; they were all listening. But already bored, Lily felt that something was lacking; Mr Bankes felt that something was lacking. Pulling her shawl round her Mrs Ramsay felt that something was lacking. All of them bending themselves to listen thought, “Pray heaven that the inside of my mind may not be exposed,” for each thought, “The others are feeling this. They are outraged and indignant with the government about the fishermen. Whereas, I feel nothing at all.” …

…and Mrs Ramsay, leaving the argument entirely in the hands of the two men (Charles Tansley & Mr Bankes) wondered why she was so bored by this talk, and wished, looking at her husband at the other end of the table, that he would say something. One word, she said to herself. For if he said a thing, it would make all the difference. He went to the heart of things. He cared about fishermen and their wages. He could not sleep for thinking of them. It was altogether different when he spoke; one did not feel then, pray heaven Then, realising that it was because she admired him so much that she was waiting for him to speak, she felt as if somebody had been praising her husband to her and their marriage, and she glowed all over without realising that it was she herself who had praised him. She looked at him thinking to find this in his face; he would be looking magnificent…

See how Woolf let Mrs Ramsay’s feelings toward her husband wander from complete indifference to intense affection. Her feelings are never still. And notice also how Woolf manage to give all of her main characters the same complexity.

Its just like life, isn’t it!?! I really have to spend some time trying to get a better hold of what she is doing – and how she is doing it.

Garden Path in Spring

Duncan Grant: Garden Path in Spring (1944)

Duncan Grant was a central figure in the circle of artist and writers known as The Bloomsbury Group, which included Grant’s cousin Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s sister the painter Vanessa Bell and Vanessa’s husband the critic Clive Bell.

Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were closely associated in their professional and personal lives for more than fifty years.

The garden depicted above was part of the estate at Charleston, a remote farmhouse at the foot of Firle Beacon in Sussex where Grant lived and worked with Vanessa Bell from 1916 until his death. Under previous owners the garden had been used for growing fruit and vegetables; under the direction of Grant and Bell, it was transformed into the very archetype of a delightfully disordered English cottage garden.

Jacky Klein writes:

Certainly the wider world is not alluded to in Garden Path in Spring, where the intimacy of the domestic garden setting is intensified by the crowded composition. Blocking out the views beyond and even the sky above, the voluminous trees and plants fill the entire canvas, while blossoming branches sweep inwards to form a protective shade. The extent to which Grant’s vision in the early 1940s was of an inward-looking, enclosed world is most apparent when the Charleston paintings are compared with his earlier, European, landscapes.

As a retreat from war the garden at Charleston was an anomaly. Under the government’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign between 1939 and 1945, six and a half million acres of countryside had been ploughed up and transformed into productive, utilitarian allotments. Haphazard and superfluous, Grant’s flower garden was a rare luxury, and in some senses a rejection of the nationalistic language of wartime self-sufficiency, in line with his earlier pacifist response to the First World War. The detached, carefree and luxurious world of Charleston, enjoyed by its inhabitants and visitors, was to appear increasingly out of tune with modern British life, and in the post-war era of austerity and rationing Grant suffered a decline in his reputation.

Duncan Grant’s bedroom at Charleston, with an east view over the pond.

The pleasures of rereading

My year with Virginia Woolf imply rereading. Quite a lot of it. It is such a pleasure! And there is so much new to focus on, even in the texts I thought I knew fairly well. There is no doubt that my own situation in life influence my way of reading & understanding.

Today I went back to The Lighthouse. This is how it opens:

The Window

“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, …

“But,” said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, “it won’t be fine.”

Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it.

I love how she introduces James: Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, … Isn’t this just a great psychological observation?! And isn’t it also very interesting to se how carefully and serious she presents the personality of a child.

But what actually surprised me the most today, was how easy it is, at 45, to identify with Mrs. Ramsay. I never did that before … last time I read this book (20 years ago or so) I saw Mrs. Ramsay as a mother-figure, also to me – the reader, today it felt almost like her thoughts were mine …

… rather shocking …

Thank You Virginia!

Virginia Woolf died this day, on 28 March, in 1941 – when she drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home in Sussex, by putting rocks in her coat pockets. Her body was found later in April and she was then cremated, her ashes spread under two elms at Monks’ House. She had left two similar suicide notes, one possibly written a few days earlier before an unsuccessful attempt. The one addressed to Leonard read in part;

Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again….And I shan’t recover this time…..I am doing what seems the best thing to do….I can’t fight any longer….Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer….I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

Virginia and Vita at Monk’s House in 1933 (photographed by Leonard Woolf)

Through letters and diaries Virginia Woolf showed us bits and pieces of her complicated and stressful mental life. But she also told us about experiences of great happiness, love and joy. Darkness and light are both strong forces in her work, the interplay between the two gives her writing an unsurpassed depth and strength.

Today is a sad day, I really wish she could have known how much she has come to mean for so many of us!

The Voyage Out

Inspired by Caroline’s beautiful review I’ve started reading Virginia Woolf’s first published novel: The Voyage Out (1915).

Throughout The Voyage Out, writes Suzanne Raitt in The Cambridge Companion, Rachel (the heroine of the story) fights, just like Virginia Woolf herself, to develop a voice to which people will listen:

Each of the ladies, being after the fashion of their sex, highly trained in promoting men’s talk without listening to it, could think—about the education of children, about the use of fog sirens in an opera—without betraying herself. Only it struck Helen that Rachel was perhaps too still for a hostess, and that she might have done something with her hands.

“Perhaps—?” she said at length, upon which they rose and left, vaguely to the surprise of the gentlemen, who had either thought them attentive or had forgotten their presence.

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (1915) chp. 1

Its strange, weird actually, but I recognize this situation so very well. I still meet it when I, every now and then, spend time with men that are older than myself. How they can talk and talk and talk without paying any attention to the fact that they are in the company of smart(er) and (more) interesting women – with important stories to tell …

Is it still more difficult for a woman than a man to find her own voice?