Virginia Woolf's Love Affair with Words and Writing
by Gayla Nelson
When one thinks about prolific writers, names like Shakespeare, Twain, and Dickens may come immediately to mind. These, of course, are the mal writers known to anyone who has so much as attended junior high school in America during the past century. But when we think of female writers who have contributed a vast amount of material to the world of literature, many of us may mention Emily Dickinson and then have to stop and think. This is unfortunate and unfair, especially for female students who tend to grow up with the notion that the only great writers were men. It is only later on that we are exposed to a prolific female writer: Virginia Woolf. From the publication of The Voyage Out in 1913 to the posthumously published Between the Acts in 1941; from letters to literary criticisms to biographies; from endless Bloomsbury discussions to personal letters between Woolf and her sister, Vanessa, there is one thing which all critics seem to agree about when it comes to Virginia Woolf: she was in love with words and the writing process.
Virginia Woolf will never be accused of possessing an economy with words. She was precise in her word choice, but she did not skimp on them. Whether she was writing in her stream of consciousness mode as seen in The Waves, or painstakingly outlining the history of a particular subject, such as the origin of the spaniel found in the introduction to Flush: A Biography, Woolf found a way to immerse the reader into her words. Although her works are not considered poems, they are often characterized as poetic. In the early years of her writing, as her style was developing and she began applying it to actual plot lines and characters, E. M. Forster says, "...her successful works are all suffused with poetry and enclosed in it" (17). But he also felt that the poetry sometimes remained at the sacrifice of true character development. "And this is her great difficulty. Holding on with one hand to poetry, she stretches and stretches to grasps things which are best gained by letting go of poetry...So that is her problem. She is a poet, who wants to write something as to a novel as possible" (19-20).
Twenty first century readers are not attune to the sensibility of writing of which Virginia Woolf was a master. The reading becomes more difficult because of its poetic nature. It is a style seldom seen in today's writers. William Troy, in his essay "Virginia Woolf: The Novel of Sensibility", found that the poetic words that she uses are essential to the novel, as seen in the long monologue at the end of The Waves. He states that, "...there is at least the implication that she is aware that reality when it is encountered is something far too important to be covered over with beautiful phrases" (39). She can, in a sense, "cut to the chase" when need be. Troy believed that it was a matter of response to reality; that some writers, because of culture or training, have the effect of "...having occasioned the feeling more often than feeling the language..."(36).
In 1927, Virginia Woolf wrote about the novel to come in "The Narrow Bride of Art." She stated that "in ten or fifteen years' time prose will be used for purposes for which prose has never been used before. That cannibal, the novel, which has devoured so many forms of art will by then have devoured even more" (20). And that a new novel would be "written in prose, but in prose which has many of the characteristics of poetry. It will have something of the exaltation of poetry, but much of the ordinariness of prose. It will be dramatic, and yet not a play. It will be read, not acted" (20). And fifteen years later, in 1941, soon after her death, Between the Acts was indeed published, which many critics have found to be what she had promised in 1927, to deliver (Wilkinson 146).
Woolf found her voice through impressionism. "...creating new language symbols to convey what it has perceived or, as sometimes happens, of re-creating traditional symbols with enough force to make then serve again..." (Troy 36). Even though she is not writing poetry, her language has compressed and become dense with images. The reader must slow down in the reading to take it all in. For many who have studied American writers in particular, this can become an arduous task. We want an easy read, or more thorough character development that she is willing, and in the view of some of the more severe critics, capable, of offering. Her style is different and must be approached as such. The imagery is there and must be dealt with. But the context of the imagery within her characters is different, as Troy expresses so well. "The images that pass through in her character's minds are rarely seized from any particular background of concrete experience. There are a few of them which we have not encountered somewhere before. They belong not so much to the particular character as to the general tradition of literature. The effect is of an insidious infiltration of tradition into sensibility" (37). This is seen in both straight description and in presentation of mood. Her writing was the manner in which she found herself. It evolved as she evolved., but unlike the average person who makes this journey of self-discovery within the confines of their immediate circle of family and friends, Woolf experienced hers through her writing and it was on public display, and as such, open to criticism.
Not unlike her own perception of photography as something that can be misleading and manipulated, her choice of words has also often been misunderstood. In reference to the attack by E. M. Forster who stated that Three Guineas is "cantankerous and anachronistic...a shrill and angry work." J. B. Batchelor defended Woolf and the strong words and language she chose to use, saying "...the protests in Three Guineas are legitimate in the context of the thirties; secondly that feminism proper is aesthetically unacceptable to Virginia Woolf and hardly appears in her writings: and thirdly that what is constantly in her mind is not feminism but a passionate concern with the nature of womanhood" (178). Her choice of words belonged with the subject matter. Her poetic tone depended upon the characters and story line. Whether she focused on food, places, or those things of silence, those moments of being all were dependant on the subject at hand. She was passionate about man and his propensity for war and so her words were more forceful and could easily be misinterpreted as shrill in Three Guineas. Often she is attacked, but also often praised, for her amazing skill in the very absolute opposite end of the writing spectrum - her use of poetic devices. It was all simply a choice of language and she has such an incredible grasp of the English language that she was able to manipulate her scenes, much like one can manipulate photographs so that the reader sees what you want them to see and believes what you want them to believe. Woolf continuously sought to improve her writing through her choice of words in order to achieve the tone to carry the message of any particular novel or criticism. I do not agree with Trish Wilson in her essay, which focused on the Bloomsbury group and the notion of the member's snobbishness, art, writing, and intellectual pursuits, who stated that "All writers, both male and female, must write from a calm center not contaminated with anger or fear, which is very difficult to do" (5).
I believe that often the inspiration for great writing, and particularly for Virginia Woolf, comes from those very aspects of human nature. It is often through our anger that we see a wrong that needs to be righted, and Woolf saw much in her world of the early twentieth century that needed to chance, particularly with World War II looming before them, and the inequality of women, especially in intellectual pursuits and recognition. Words were not just a tool for Woolf, but a weapon in the war against those things. Her love of words and the power and poetry, which she infused into them, is manifested in each and every piece of writing that she delivered.
Even greater than her love of words was her love of the writing process. It was seemingly more important than her relationships with people. Wilson was right when she stated that "The most important love in Virginia's mind, above all, was her writing" 92). Even Forster, who attacked some works and "shrill and angry" admitted that "She [Woolf] liked writing with an intensity which few writers have attained or desired" (15). He would also disagree with Wilson's view on contamination of the writing by an angered author, seeing Woolf's work as extremely centered. "she was master of her complicated equipment, and though most of us like to write sometimes seriously and sometimes in fun, few of us can so manage the two impulses that they speed each other up, as hers did" (16).
Virginia Woolf managed to write seventeen books in twenty-one years. She began reading serious literature at a very early age and according to Claire Sprague, this influenced her as greatly as her depression, her ambiguous sexual orientation, and that, most importantly, "...her life as a reader and critic fed her life as a novelist" 911). Much has been made over the fact that she was not only a writer, but a literary critic as well, and that her concern for the common reader was always taken into account whether she was writing for herself or reviewing someone else's work. A common reader was not to be confused with an uneducated one. She considered the common reader an intelligent class, but felt that "...the academic interest in literature could only lead to a fatal split between the specialized group on the one hand and the reading public on the other, with the artist somewhere in the middle" (Goldman 166). And, outside of her own love for writing, it was for this common reader, and not the critics, for whom she wrote.
Mark Goldman, in his essay "Virginia Woolf and the Critic as Reader" believed that it was not hard to prove that she was of the modern critical tradition, and that she expressed those values through her emphasis on viewing the written word as a formal and objective work of art. It was this very belief that makes it imperative to her that there is a crucial relationship between reason and emotion. He points out that this is quite obvious by a review of her works. "her experiments in the novel, subjective, impressionistic, led paradoxically to a critical struggle with form, and her defense of an emotional structure in the novel parallels her own experience as an intensely subjective yet tenaciously objective literary artist" (162). By the time that Virginia Woolf wrote Between the Acts, Wilkinson says "...it seems as if she had her own fifteen year old prescription in front of her as she wrote" (147).
Virginia Woolf worked on numerous projects at the same time. While she worked on a novel she would also be researching for a biography, critiquing other works, writing countless letters, and engaging in intellectual conversations about art and literature with her peers. Writing, for her, was as important as breathing, sometimes even more important than breathing because publications of works often left her depressed and anxious about the critical response, although she insisted that she did not write for the critics, but for herself and the common reader. Forster discussed the how of her writing this way: "She gathered up her material and digested it without damaging its freshness, how she rearranged it to form unities, how she was a poet who wanted to write novels, how these novels bear upon them the marks of their strange gestation - some might say scars...she indulges in a pattern, but she never intrudes her personality or over handles her English; respect for her subject dominates her, and only occasionally does she allow her fancy to play" (18-20).
The criticisms, both good and bad, did impact her. She left behind a legacy of work, much of it still applicable in today's society. Her love of words and of writing are still studied and enjoyed today. They give us some insight not only to Virginia Woolf as a writer, but also as a woman of the twentieth century. Just as she wrote the thoughts of Mrs. Ramsey in To The Lighthouse, her thoughts and feelings are projected and we gain an understanding of her view of the world as it was then, and to some extent, as it still is today.
Batchelor, J.B. "Feminism in Virginia Woolf". Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Claire Sprague. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Forsterm, E.M. "Virginia Woolf." Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Claire Sprague. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Goldman, M. "Virginia Woolf and the Critic as Reader." Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Claire Sprague. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Sprague, C. Ed. Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Claire Sprague. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Troy, W. "Virginia Woolf: The Novel of Sensibility." Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Claire Sprague. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Wilkinson, A. Y. "A Principal of Unity in Between the Acts." Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Claire Sprague. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
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