My reading group’s choice for March was The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I have a lot of Woolf on my shelves but haven’t got round to reading very much so I was glad at the choice. Until I picked it up and tried to read it.
It’s well known as her most challenging work and for good reason. There is a rhythm and an order to the words but it is very poetical, at times random and mostly quite a difficult read.
I put it down again.
I needed to get into the flow of her writing and I looked at my shelves of Woolf and decided an experiment – I would read only Woolf or Woolf-related works all month and immerse myself in her and then near the end of the month, I would try The Waves again.
I owned five volumes of her diary and decided to start with those, reading her fiction simultaneously as she wrote it, and supplement the whole thing with biographies, criticism and essays, and ideally read some contemporaries too. It was an ambitious ask for someone with a full time job, a small child and a novel of their own to rewrite but I decided to see what I could do.
The diaries start in 1915 and so far this month I’ve managed to read two and a half volumes of them so I’m at 1927. We’ve witnessed the end to the war, the flu outbreak, a range of political changes and the general strike. The Woolfs (they referred to themselves as the Woolves) have moved back to London from Richmond, and bought property, started the Hogarth Press, taken a variety of writing jobs, and Virginia has written The Common Reader, a range of Short Stories, Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Of these, I have read the stories, Jacob and Mrs Dalloway. I’ve also managed to read some biographical and critical books too, supplementing my own books with a trip to the library.
What has this experiment achieved? I’ve absolutely loved the immersion in Virginia’s world. It’s a confusing whirl of dinners and teas with famous people, setbacks and illnesses, lost dogs, arguments with the servants, and heaps of books. She reads and writes and reads some more. I tried reading her diaries before but spread them out and spent too much time trying to remember who everyone was. This was a mistake. It is easier to let the detail wash over you and read them in big chunks as many of the same people come in and out. She is a writer who rewards you with a big reading exercise like this – with her letters, diaries, novels and range of articles there is a lot to get through and they provide you with a full honest picture.
Woolf is racist, anti-semitic, and a terrible snob. While much of this could be excused as being a product of her time (and class), it is still galling to read some of her dreadful thoughts and then be told that her set believed they were intellectually superior and open to more ideas. Nevertheless, she has great insight into other people, and offers that insight into her own marriage and her own resilience in dealing with a mental illness for which there was no real treatment at the time. She has humour, a healthy sense of competition and criticism, and a real sense of injustice that can at times transcend her snobbery. She was, in short, a real contradictory, flawed person – and one with a wonderful writing gift.
I have resumed my diary in response to hers and admire her experimental writing techniques in hers as a place to try new things. I would love to continue the experiment and immersion as I still have so much to read but I also have reviews piling up to get through (Virginia would approve of this as much of the time she had to put aside what she wanted to do in order to write reviews that brought money in) so hopefully in May I can resume with To The Lighthouse.
I did read and finish The Waves, which was still challenging but without the immersion I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have finished it. The only disappointment is that I didn’t read it in order alongside the diary, because I haven’t got that far yet but I may dip into it again when I get there and see if I find it different.