Literary Crush – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf 1 June 1939

Discovering the writing in the shadows of the writer.

I can’t remember when I first heard the name Virginia Woolf; I seem somehow to have always known of her. A tall slim-framed woman, with a long face and a slightly severe expression – set off by sad eyes, heavy lidded with the weight of her convictions.

As a member of the Bloomsbury Set2 of thinkers and artists Woolf was determined to challenge conventional thinking and intelligent enough to find the language to validate her life lived on its own terms.

And it was that life lived on its own terms that I first engaged with. I remember being enthralled by the scandal of her affairs with women, most notably Vita Sackville-West3, who inspired her famous gender-bending novel Orlando.

But here is the problem for me – I was so taken with her that I found I couldn’t see past the woman to find the writing. It was like her work was overshadowed by her infamy. I knew I needed a way into her writing but I just didn’t expect it to come in the form of an essay.

The essay On Being Ill4 was written by Woolf in January 1926 for The New Criterion5 and I was immediately intrigued by this quieter, less celebrated work.

Woolf, like so many creative individuals, infamously struggled to maintain her mental health. She endured terrible bouts of depression which ultimately led to her suicide in 1941, at the age of 59. My sense is that the price of seeking freedom from convention is not measured in sterling or dollars but in the degrees to which the human spirit can be tested and broken. There is nothing ‘free’ about free-thinking.

I wondered whether a hint of regret might emerge of the toll taken upon her by having lived a pioneering life. No, instead Woolf defiantly sets the ‘recumbent’ bed-ridden individual up against the ‘upright’ healthy as she explains that it is the ‘recumbent’, on their back ‘with their face to the sky’ who can see the world with a fresh perspective.

It is a perspective which scrutinises those ‘genial pretences’, such as sympathy:-

“We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown.”6

And there it was – shining, her writing, her beautiful prose, her imagination on the page.

Woolf goes on to explain that her imaginative powers became enhanced with illness.

“In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarme or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.”7

With every page I turned, Woolf the celebrity gave way to Woolf the writer. Not only in her lyricism, but as she explored the notion that ill health had given her a unique perspective on life, her way into new levels of creative experience. No famous novel could tell the reader this – no journey To The Lighthouse, no party with Mrs Dalloway, could afford such insight.

And as my snowfield glistens, Virginia Woolf is no longer in the way of Virginia Woolf.

 

Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941)

  1. Photo: Gisèle Freund/IMEC/Fonds MCC, printed in the Telegraph 9 July 2014 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/10914210/The-last-photograph-of-Virginia-Woolf.html
  2. The Bloomsbury Set. http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/bloomsbury-group/introduction/profiles
  3. Vita Sackville-West. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/03/09/a-thing-that-wants-virginia/
  4. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection
  5. The New Criterion https://thenewcriterion1926.wordpress.com/
  6. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection
  7. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection

 

 

Anna Larner – Author of Highland Fling, Hooper Street and Love’s Portrait.

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

The Objects We Treasure – Diva Magazine

We all have certain objects that we treasure – that evoke cherished memories of moments, people, and places.

Some Of My Diva Magazine Collection – circa 1994 onwards.Diva1994

The recent news that Jane Hill, a respected journalist and newsreader at the BBC, will be writing a column for Diva Magazine is both exciting and important. Whenever a high profile figure endorses LGBT lives it gives the bully “homophobia” a bloody nose.

I remember buying my first Diva in 1994, the year Diva was first published. It was incredible that a tiny newsagent in a small town in mid-wales, where I was studying, stocked it and I remember thinking a whole magazine for lesbians, WOW. It was also around that time that kd lang was making me feel all unnecessary by ruffling her hair in her video for Constant Craving…anyway I digress.

These early issues included interviews with Sandra Bernhard, the newly-out Sandi Toksvig, and the wonderful late Claire Rayner. Agony Aunt Claire spoke with forthright compassion about ‘the injustice of it all’ in relation to the unequal age of consent. High profile figures endorsing LGBT lives…wait, hold on, that was what twenty odd years ago?

Anyone else have a sinking feeling that nothing has really changed – role models as important now as then –  the need to challenge homophobia and to assert our rights still as relevant now as in 1994…if not more so?

In her recent email Chief Executive Officer of Stonewall, Ruth Hunt, challenges LGBT people today to ask themselves “Are we really free to be ourselves wherever we are?”

So a heartfelt thank you Diva, for surviving in the fickle climate of publishing and for working so faithfully to ensure that the lives of lesbian and bisexual women can be visible, celebrated and endorsed.

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

 

The Objects We Treasure – Silver Moon Bookshop

We all have certain objects that we treasure – that evoke cherished memories of moments, people, and places.

One of my favourite treasures is a mug I bought around 1996 or so, from the iconic women’s London bookshop Silver Moon. The names of fabulous female writers are emblazoned all over it. It also evokes exciting memories of discovering LGBT London.

As my tea steams from my mug, I am reminded of the fantastic history to which we all belong.

Silver Moon Bookshop Mug

Perhaps you have a treasured object too? Feel free to post on my Facebook page.

silver-moon-womens-bookshop

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.