The Sunday Salon – Mrs. Woolf

9780312305062This is one of the most singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked.  At this moment, there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead.  Her mind hums.  This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes, to reach the gold.  She can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self.  If she were religious, she would call it the soul.  It is more than the sum of her intellect and her emotions, more than the sum of her experiences, though it runs like veins of brilliant metal through all three.  It is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance, and when she is very fortunate she is able to write directly through that faculty.  Writing in that state is the most profound satisfaction she knows, but her access to it comes and goes without warning.  She may pick up her pen and follow it with her hand as it moves across the paper; she may pick up her pen and find that she’s merely herself, a woman in a housecoat holding a pen, afraid and uncertain, only mildly competent, with no idea about where to begin or what to write

I awoke this morning to a fresh covering of snow on the ground, and while this has become an all too familiar sight over the past three months, today I found it strangely beautiful, so pristine and perfect, unmarred by footprint or tire tread.  I poured coffee into my favorite cup and sat quietly for a while, taking it in.

Then I took up The Hours, and read the passage quoted above, Michael Cunningham writing as Virginia Woolf, about the “inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance,” and about the dichotomy which exists among creative people, the effort to channel and control that inner faculty so one can always access the “parallel, purer self” and thus be more than “a woman in a housecoat holding a pen.”

That process fascinates me, especially among women writers like Virginia Woolf, and I feel a period of immersion coming on.  By which I mean I’ll be delving into the life/work of Mrs. Woolf, a study I’ve taken on before with several authors.

Do you ever do that? Become fixated on a writer and search out biographies, critical essays, and, most especially, any published copies of their diaries and letters?  Then just bury yourself in their life while concurrently reading their novels or poems?

I was just a child the first time I became engaged in this process, and had borrowed Girl With A Pen, a biography of Charlotte Bronte, from my school library. I also snagged a paperback copy of Jane Eyre, which I squirreled away in my desk drawer (at age 10, my mother told me I was too young to read it), and absolutely reveled in reading the two books side by side.

I harbored plenty of writing dreams for myself in those days, and reading the story of Charlotte’s early years on the windblown moors in northern England, certainly fueled my imagination. But more than that,  reading the story of this writer’s life helped me build a picture of what a writing life could look like, and made me even more desirous of it.   Over the years, I’ve had periods of intense interest in several writers and poets: Bronte, Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton.  I have this desire to know what these women were thinking, what they were doing at a given moment, what they’ve suffered or how they’ve rejoiced.  And how all this plays into their writing.  

In an essay entitled De Memoria, Nancy Mitford (whose biography of  Zelda Fitzgerald was another favorite of mine) writes that “even at age forty, I still kindle to other people’s lives.  I write about women who were legends in their own time, and the stories of their lives give me access to a shared past I could not do without.  It seems to me that these stories lie at the very heart of biography, and that in telling them we forge connections between the past and our own time.  Fierce and piercing, they hold fast against the losses of time.  But more than that, my old heroines give me signals to my own life: they tell me what I need to know to live.”

I’ll be spending a good portion of today rummaging through my bookshelves, gathering all the Woolf I can find…I know there are several biographies, all the volumes of her diary, a collection of letters.  And of course, all of the novels and several of her critical essays.  Perhaps in the process, I’ll learn how to access that “purer, parallel self,” the one that might lift me away from being “just a woman in a housecoat holding a pen.”

The Sunday

8 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon – Mrs. Woolf

  1. “The Hours” is one of my favorite books ever. Like you, once a book grabs me, I love seeking out anything else I can find by or about the same author. (I tend to let this process linger, as a way to savor the experience.) I’ll be interested to hear what else you discover about Mrs. Woolf. Great post!

  2. Yes! Well, I don’t have periods of ‘immersion’, but I do like to take time to familiarise myself with all the work of my favouite authors (Woolf, Bronte sisters, Ondaatje…) and I do spend an awful lot of time reading their non-fiction. Letters, diaries, essays, that sort of thing.

    I haven’t delved into biographies all that much though. One day I know I’ll get around to reading Hermione Lee’s biography of VW…

  3. I don’t usually like to read too many books in a row about/by the same author, but when I’ve really been taken in by a book I always turn to google to find out more about the book and the writer. I like looking on for an analysis of a good book, and I enjoy Wikipedia for what it’s worth when I’m curious about a writer. And of course, I turn to other bloggers to see what they thought of the book I read.

  4. The first time this happened to me was when I read My Antonia and had to find everything I could on Cather, her writing and her life. It’s happened several times since then and I head to the university library and devour what I can find.

  5. It is always satisfying to spend some time with an author, finding out about them as a person as well as a superb voice. On some of the women’s writing courses I did, there was a general suggestion that women in particular responded well to an in-depth treatment of life and work, because they often wrote out of their lives more evidently – having been confined for so much of history to their own domestic sphere and disallowed from turning their ego outwards onto the world. And you remind me I must read The Hours. I’ve wanted to for ages.

  6. Interesting – I’m not one of those people who searches out more of and about an author. But I often find that I love to flit around the edges. For example, when I read The Hours, I just had to read Mrs. Dalloway, and I think (I know I watched the movie) I read The Other End of the World but that’s as far as that went. I think I tried to read something else by Woolf but didn’t finish and then I was off to something else. Probably LOTR! I wish I had been book-blogging back then.

  7. This is a thought-provoking post. First and foremost The Hours is on the list for re-read this year. Michael Cunningham did an excellent job imitating Woolf’s stream of consciousness style. The prose just hovers above my head, waiting to be absorbed but never did fully. It’s meant for re-reading.

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