Tag Archives: Penguin Modern Classics

We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Earlier this year I posted a themed review on the subject of outsiders in fiction on Bookword. I invited further suggestions. This novel, We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, was recommended by another blogger and lent to me by a friend. The author is popular with some readers and bloggers, but I have to admit that I have not read anything else by Shirley Jackson, although I knew her name. It’s a very dark book, with plenty of violence, magic, and wicked acts together with some humorous incidents.

 

We have always lived in the Castle

The novel is narrated by Merricat who is 18 and lives with her sister Constance who is somewhat older. Together with Uncle Julien they live in a big house, separate from the village in Vermont. He is old and infirm and requires a wheelchair and does not appear to see Merricat. He was damaged in an arsenic attack six years previously which killed the other members of the family: the sisters’ parents and brother, and Julian’s wife. It is pretty clear from the first page who it was that carried out the murders. Constance was tried and acquitted. It also becomes evident that the truth is known by both sisters, although they do not refer to it until there is a crisis.

Since her trial Constance is a recluse, and people in the village continue to believe she was the murderer despite the acquittal. The villagers dislike the Blackwood family. The father had sealed off a path and the whole estate. Now Merricat must go to the village twice a week to collect supplies. The trio live in a very restricted and routinised way: days for going to the village, or dusting; meals prepared by Constance; Merricat not allowed to touch food or to do various things. She behaves more like an 8 year old than a person of 18.

Their routine is interrupted when cousin Charles arrives hoping to find some of the family money. He begins to dominate the household, and to sway Constance. He suggests that Julien should be in a home and Merricat disciplined or something worse.

Merricat practices some of her magic to get rid of him. She has already protected their estate by burying certain items and by nailing a book to a tree. When the book falls down she knows that their lives are going to be disturbed. She tries to get rid of Charles by ignoring him, by being rude, by disturbing his belongings. Ultimately a fire is started by his pipe in his bedroom and the upper floors of the house are destroyed. The crowd on onlookers trash the house and its contents in one of the most horrific scenes of the book. 

Above it all, most horrible, was the laughter. I saw one of the Dresden figures thrown and break against the porch rail, and the other fell unbroken and rolled along the grass. I heard Constance’s harp go over with a musical cry, and a sound which I knew was a chair being smashed against the wall. 
“Listen,” said Charles from somewhere, “will a couple of you guys help me with this safe?”
Then through the laughter, someone began, “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?” It was rhythmic and insistent. I am on the moon, I thought, please let me be on the moon. Then I heard the sound of dishes smashing and at that minute realised that we stood outside the tall windows of the dining room and they were coming very close. (106)

Uncle Julien dies of a heart attack in the excitement. After the crowds have gone, Merricat and Constance clear up as best they can and continue living in the house that now resembles a castle. When the young women have remade a home in the ruins of the house the villagers gradually begin to leave presents of food in expiation. Charles returns to try to get back in the house, but the sisters ignore him, and he leaves. A new set of quiet routines is established and the two sisters do not have to engage with anyone.

It’s a very black story, some of it funny. The ostracism by the village, the othering of Constance and Merricat is a reminder of some dark social evil. In part it is a justification of the seclusion sought by the Blackwood sisters, and is thought to represent Shirley Jackson’s experience of living in North Bennington, Vermont with her family. 

The co-dependence of the sisters, and the determination of Merricat to control everything are also unnerving. As is their obsession with food. 

Shirley Jackson

Born in 1916, Shirley Jackson died in her sleep in 1965, not long after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle. It was her last book. She had published six novels as well as around 200 short stories and also earned money from her journalism. 

It’s ironic to note that Shirley Jackson died at the age of forty-nine, shortly after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle, of amphetamine addiction, alcoholism and morbid obesity; negligent of her health for years, she is said to have spoken openly of not expecting to live to be fifty, and in the final months of her life suffered from agoraphobia so extreme she couldn’t leave her squalid bedroom – as if in mimicry of the agoraphobic sisters of We have always lived in the Castle. (154-5) From the Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates

She is known as a writer of horror and mystery. This book is less of a mystery, more of an unfolding horror story. 

Cover of first edition in US

We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, first published in 1962. I was lent the 2009 version in the Penguin Modern Classics series. 158pp Thanks Anne!

Some relevant links

My post on Outsiders in Fiction on Bookword, February 2020

Reviewed by Heavenali in March 2016, who loved it.

Reviewed enthusiastically on JacquiWine’s Journal in October 2017, and it was she who recommended I added this to the list of outsiders.

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Henry James, Elizabeth Taylor and me

So normally I wouldn’t pick up a novel by Henry James. However, as regular readers of the blog will know, I am intending to eschew the pursuit of new books in favour of rereading some, and reading books already published. The relevant post can be read hereThe Spoils of Poynton by Henry James falls into the second category. 

I found a copy of The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James a few weeks ago in a second-hand bookshop. I had planned to read it at some point because I came across references to it in a novel by Elizabeth Taylor. Now I had access to a copy. (It never seemed pressing enough to request a copy from the library, but of course I could have done that some time ago.)

What follows are my thoughts about The Spoils of Poynton and its relationship to In a Summer Season  by Elizabeth Taylor.

The Spoils of Poynton  by Henry James

This novel was first serialised and then published as a book in 1897. It’s a tightly plotted exploration of a widow’s obsession with the contents of the grand house called Poynton, and of the dilemmas encountered by her young friend, Fleda Vetch, when Mrs Gereth steals her former belongings. 

Mrs Gereth had spent her adult married life acquiring and loving the contents of Poynton. But when she is widowed all is left to her son. When he becomes engaged to the unappreciative Mona Mrs Gereth must leave the house and its contents and live in a maiden aunt’s cottage, Ricks. Her young friend Fleda also appreciates the finer things in life and is seen as a hanger-on by others. Mrs Gereth tries to get her son to marry Fleda so that her possessions will be in the care of someone who appreciates them. The young people do fall in love but only reveal this after Owen’s engagement to Mona. Fleda refuses to be with Owen until Mona has released him. 

Mrs Gereth steals the spoils and installs them in Ricks. Much of the book concerns the battle to return them, in which Fleda acts as go between for Mrs Gereth and Owen. In the end they are all caught out by what they don’t say, and Mona gets her man and the spoils. But Poynton burns down.

Mrs Gereth is a strong, opinionated and obsessive character, who places her own interests before all others. Fleda tries to do right, and in the end Mona defeats her because of it. Owen is a simple soul, but the most honest of the trio, although he too looses out, married to the wrong woman.

In A Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

The action of In A Summer Season takes place over one summer and concerns a wealthy widow who has remarried. Her husband Dermot is somewhat younger than her. One of the charms of her novels is that Elizabeth Taylor frequently makes references to works of fiction. The Spoils of Poynton appears as a clever, quiet device to show Dermot’s ignorance of literature and the awkwardness of his marriage.  He does not recognise the reference to Mrs Gereth’s name, when it comes up and assumes she is a neighbour. His mistake is glossed over by those present and when he realises this he feels humiliated. The Spoils of Poynton had been the favourite novel of Kate’s first husband. He inscribed her copy so that the book is a link to him and to Kate’s previous life in a way that Dermot resents. My full comments on the novel can be read here.

Henry James and Elizabeth Taylor

As I read his novel, I became aware that the two novelists share a very sharp eye for imperfect characters for their, social difficulties, unarticulated dilemmas and shifts of understanding. You can say the same for Edith Wharton I believe.

Both Henry James and Elizabeth Taylor write exquisite sentences, with balance and flow. James’s are long and languorous, full of Latinate words, and psychological shifts. Hers are usually a little shorter, but we know that she took great trouble with the rhythm and flow of her sentences.

And both are concerned with moral issues. In The Spoils of Poynton  we see the effects of obsession and not being open. In a Summer Season  is concerned with different types of love and a fair bit of lying

And I am pleased to have read some Henry James and to have caught up with the references in the other novel.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. First published in 1961. I read the Virago Modern Classics edition from1983. 221pp

The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, first published in 1897. I read the Penguin Modern Classic edition from 1963. 192pp

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Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. (21).

So begins Rachel Carson’s influential book, Silent Spring. But something happens to this idyll and one spring the town wakes up to silence.

It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh. …

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves. (22)

In 1962, with this dire warning, Rachel Carson launched into her attack on the unbridled use of chemical pesticides. We have reached the 1960s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury.

Summary of Silent Spring

It took me a long time to read this book. At times I wondered that life on earth exists at all considering the scenario being built up by Rachel Carson about the use of chemical pesticides. She marshals her evidence. She had to in order to convince people for whom much of this was new. Science was expected to solve all problems, not create them.

Her argument is that nature is interconnected, that insects are part of a complex natural relationship affecting birds, soil, trees, and ultimately humans. Her fear was that we would alter natural life, including the birds, making for a silent spring.

She also reveals how unreliable the pesticides are, how often their use means that the pests return in force, and that scientists are disingenuous for not researching the unintended consequences of the uses of pesticides that they develop. She also blamed the big chemical companies. In her sights were DDT, but other chemicals as well.

The Impact of Silent Spring

This book is often credited with initiating environmental awareness.  Certainly she wrote persuasively about the interrelation of all living things on this earth. The chapter on soil, for example is lyrical in its appreciation of the soil and its inhabitants, especially the humble earthworm.

The soil exists in a state of constant change, taking part in cycles that have no beginning and no end. New materials are constantly being contributed as rocks disintegrate, as organic matter decays, and as nitrogen and other gases are brought down from the skies. At the same time other materials are being taken away, borrowed for temporary use by living creatures. Subtle and vastly important chemical changes are constantly in progress, converting elements derived from air and water into forms suitable for use by plants. In all these changes living organisms are active agents. (62)

The idea of Gaia was not popularised until James Locklock used it in 1979. But the concept is evident in Rachel Carson’s work: a dynamic system involving organic and inorganic material that shapes the whole biosphere.

In 1957 the US Department of Agriculture launched an attack on fire ants across 20 million acres in nine southern states. Like many such programmes there were terrible consequences and the fire ant was not even a major pest.

Never has any pesticide programme been so thoroughly and deservedly damned by practically everyone except the beneficiaries of this ‘sales bonanza’. It is an outstanding example of an ill-conceived, badly executed, and thoroughly detrimental experiment in the mass control of insects, an experiment so expensive in dollars, in destruction of animal life, and in loss of public confidence in the Agriculture Department that it is incomprehensible that any funds should still be devoted to it. (148)

The description of this and many, many other pesticide attacks mount throughout the book. At the time, her evidence undermined the confidence in science and scientists as neutral and beneficial; in the Department of Agriculture who ran these chemical programmes; and the companies that manufactured and sold the pesticides.

Rachel Carson focused on chemical pesticides, noting that not only were they dangerous, but they were ineffective as they destroyed the balance in nature. She advocated more research into biological forms of pest control. Today she would no doubt include the manufacture of plastics and a broader picture of the damage we are doing including contributing to climate change.

It is not surprising that her work was attacked, especially by the chemical companies. This is a story familiar from battles against smoking and sugar consumption. And as I read her book I came across an article in the Guardian (10thJuly): Monsanto ‘bullied scientists’ and hid weedkiller risk, lawyer tells court. The weedkiller is Roundup.

She was denigrated for being a woman without children (what did she care for genetics?), not a formally qualified scientist (she gave up her doctoral studies to work to support her family) and for writing for the general reader. She was attacked for saying truth to power. She died of cancer in 1964.

And then …?

Joni Mitchell in Concert 1974 by Paul C Babin via Wikicommons

Things began to change. President Kennedy and others were impressed, and the US began enacting the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), The Natural Environment Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act (1972) and to set up the Environment Protection Agency in 1970. In 1970 Joni Mitchell composed Big Yellow Taxi, which also referenced the blight of pesticides.

Hey farmer farmer –

Put away the DDT

I don’t care about spots on my apples

Leave me the birds and the bees

Please!

Environmental campaigning continues. Chemical companies also continue to seek profits.

Here’s a link to Brain Picking’s Maria Popova’s appreciation of her life and work, especially her moving letters to her long-term friend Dorothy Freeman: The writing of ‘Silent Spring’.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carsonwas published in 1962. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition. 323pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain (1933)

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank (1947)

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen (1950s)

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The Waves by Virginia Woolf

This book took me much longer to read than I anticipated, and I enjoyed it less than I had hoped. This is a pattern. I first tried The Waves when I was a pretentious 15-year old. I gave up. Later I came to it when I read all Virginia Woolf’s novels in the order in which they were written. I liked it, but not much of it remained with me. I was impressed by its structure, the lyrical evocation of time passing over the waves, and by the six voices of the novel. It seemed a bold experiment, but I was not sure what Virginia Woolf had achieved with it.

Emboldened by participating in #Woolfalong, hosted by Heavenali on her blog, I decided to give The Waves another go. This is my sixth contribution to #Woolfalong. You can find the others listed at the end of this post.

298-waves-coverA Summary

The structure of this book is conveyed through the six voices of the six characters. Their lives unfold through episodic sections. Between these parts are very lyrical descriptions of the waves and the surrounding countryside at successive times of day, beginning at dawn ending 200 pages later with the simple phrase

The waves broke on the shore.

THE END

In To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf had written a similar section called Time Passes, which referred to the material condition of the Ramsay’s house, the animals who lived in it, the people who were its caretakers, and the people for whom it had once been so important.

The other sections of The Waves are reported in the voices of the six speaking characters, each one indicated by ‘Bernard said,’ or ‘Jinny said,’ and so on. The characters are of an age, three boys and three girls, and there is another who never speaks, Percival, to whom they all looked up. He was something of a hero to them, a situation cemented by his early death as a result of a fall from a horse.

We follow these six people from childhood in the garden to Bernard’s death. In the final section his is the only voice and he reflects on the lives we have been reading about.

Reading The Waves

298-waves-vintage

I had several long train journeys and many quiet hours in rural France when I could expect to devote myself to the book, but it took me much longer than I had anticipated. I found that the narrative was too slight to carry me forward. I needed to read more carefully, more slowly than usual. It was like attending a modern dance performance and not being very sure where on stage to give attention.

Some of the writing is dense, unusual, experimental. Here is Bernard noticing that they have moved into another stage in life, in middle age.

‘And time,’ said Bernard, ‘lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. Last week, as I stood shaving, the drop fell. I, standing with my razor in my hand, became suddenly aware of the merely habitual nature of my action (this is the drop forming) and congratulated my hands, ironically, for keeping at it. Shave, shave, shave, I said. Go on shaving. The drop fell. All through the day’s work, at intervals, my mind went to an empty place, saying, “What is lost? What is over?” And “Over and done with,” I muttered, “over and done with”, solacing myself with words. People noticed the vacuity of my face and the aimlessness of my conversation. The last words of my sentence trailed away. And as I buttoned on my coat to go home I said more dramatically, “I have lost my youth”. (141)

This passage introduces the image of the drop indicating time has passed, adding to the idea of the steady dripping, sand running out. Virginia Woolf here combines the everyday and concrete (shaving, buttoning on a coat), clichés (such as ‘over and done with’) with this more cerebral or at least philosophical consciousness of how time changes us.

There are some motifs to notice in the text: the drop, the flower, the moths and, of course, the waves. Each wave, each event is followed by another event, similar but different, bringing change, making its mark, both creating (patterns on the sand, piles of detritus) and destroying what it makes. Some events become like talismans; an example is the water poured over his skin that awakens the very young Bernard to the sense that there is something outside of him.

What was Virginia Woolf trying to do?

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf was always experimental, and since Mrs Dalloway she had been revealing the world from inside the heads of her characters, rather than show the reaction of the characters to events. The term for this is stream of consciousness, and in an earlier post about To the Lighthouse I said,

But the phrase [stream of consciousness] is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading.

And here she is doing it with six characters over their lifetimes.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition Kate Flint contrasts the approach of Virginia Woolf with novelists such as Arnold Bennett and HG Wells who, in conventional plots, emphasised the importance of the material world.

Here she goes even further than previously in the direction of demonstrating that identity, rather than depending on the concrete circumstances of a person’s life, is primarily constructed from within, through an individual’s deployment of language. (x)

I would go further and say that Virginia Woolf rejected essentialist notions of identity. It is common to suggest that novelists uncover the true identity of their main characters. In The Waves Virginia Woolf shows us that our sense of our self changes, and in relation to others. We know our identity, have a sense of ourselves, only as far as we share, contrast and mutate with others through words.

What I loved

To the extent that this makes a great novel I am not sure. I think I would have to reread it many times to understand its many layers, themes, motifs and ideas. But I can start with picking out some of the successes that I noted on this, my third attempt.

First those lyrical sections, between the episodes in the life of her six characters, are marvels of writing: imagery, rhythm, colour and timbre. Descriptive passages are often static, a moment for the reader and characters to draw breath. But in The Waves the interludes bring change, are all about change.

The sun rose. Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore, gilding the ribs of the eaten-out boat and making the sea-holly and its mailed leaves gleam blue as steel. The girl who had shaken her head and made all the jewels, the topaz, the aquamarine, the water-coloured jewels with sparks of fire in them, dance, now bared her brows and with wide-opened eyes drove a straight path over the waves. The quivering mackerel sparkling was darkened; they massed themselves; their green hollows deepened and darkened and might be traversed by shoals of wandering fish. As they splashed and drew back they left a black rim of twigs and cork on the shore and straws and sticks of wood, as if some light shallop (see note) had foundered and burst its sides and the sailor had swum to land and bounded up the cliff and left his frail cargo to be washed ashore. (54)

Portugal 2010

Portugal 2010

Then there is a section that brought a nostalgic pang to my reading, which follows the passage just quoted. The six characters are now young adults, Bernard and Neville up at Oxford or Cambridge, the others beginning to feel their adultness. In this section the possibilities of life are fully anticipated by the young people.

‘The complexity of things becomes more close,’ said Bernard, ‘here at college, where the stir and pressure of life are so extreme, where the excitement of mere living becomes daily more urgent. Every hour something new is unburied in the great bran pie. What am I? I ask. This? No I am that.’ (56)

It’s a long time since I felt acutely ‘the stir and pressure of life’ as extreme. This novel put me back in touch with that feeling.

And so …

And so I feel pleased that I have again engaged successfully with this novel and enjoyed some segments. But much of it seems very obscure, dense and I am not surprised that, as far as I am aware, no other writer has attempted to follow Virginia Woolf to show how people’s identities are formed from inside their heads.

(note) A shallop, by the way, is a boat used for rowing in shallow waters, especially a two-masted, gaff-rigged vessel of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is connected to the more familiar sloop.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1931). Originally published by Hogarth Press, read in Penguin Modern Classics edition (1992) 241pp.

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

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The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out was published in 1915. She was 33 years old and had already been writing professionally for 11 years, and married for three. The publication was delayed by episodes of mental illness. Some of the characters and situations came from her life, but this is not autobiography. The novel does, however, include themes and even characters to which she returned in later writing. And already she was deliberately breaking with the traditions of novel-writing.

240 Voyage Out

The story

Rachel is 24, and on her father’s boat from London to South America, via Portugal. Also on board are her aunt and uncle, Helen, and Ambrose. They are joined for a while by the Dalloways, Clarissa and Richard. Rachel is young, naïve, has been sheltered and rather badly educated. The Dalloways seem very sophisticated to Rachel and it is Mr Dalloway’s rather clumsy kiss that is the impetus to Helen’s offer to take her under her wing for their extended stay in the fictional English colony of Santa Marina.

Ambrose, Helen and Rachel install themselves in a villa and gradually meet many more English people, guests at the local hotel. These include the immensely clever and very ugly St John Hirst (Lytton Strachey) and his friend Terence Hewet. There are tea parties, a ball, a picnic, and an expedition up river. Rachel and Terrance fall in love and become engaged before Rachel catches a fever and dies.

The themes

The title suggests that Rachel will learn and mature, that it is her voyage. She is, in Helen’s words ‘an unlicked girl’ (19), and in Hewet’s, ‘young, inexperienced and inquisitive’ (p183). Her earlier, closeted life behind her, Rachel wants more for herself than many young women would aspire to:

…she wanted many more things than the love of one human being – the sea, the sky. She turned again and looked at the distant blue, which was so smooth and serene where the sky met the sea; she could not possibly want only one human being. (307)

Rachel’s development is influenced by books, social interactions, especially with people more educated than her, and the example of others such as her aunt. And she is shaped by experiences, such as Mr Dalloway’s kiss, and the Anglican service in the hotel.

The novel is concerned with more people than Rachel, although the story largely follows her. It looks at how other characters deal with the people around them, and the interactions between them; and how people respond to the big things in life, including falling in love and dying.

Readers are asked to consider what it means to be young, to grow up, to be a woman, to fall in love and be married. The novel is also concerned with the distances between people, how they see the same events differently. For example, the world of women is hidden from men, Terence explains.

‘But the lives of women of forty, of unmarried women, of working women, of women who keep shops and bring up children, of women like your aunts or Mrs Thornbury or Miss Allan – one knows nothing whatever about them. They wont tell you. Either they wont tell you or they’ve got a way of treating men. It’s the man’s view that is represented, you see.’ (215)

This novel has some similarities to Middlemarch by George Eliot. A strong, but rather innocent young woman wants to make the most of her life. Others are shown in contrast to Rachel (Dorothea) and their actions are understood within the complexity of their social circle, circumscribed by the imagined English colony of Santa Marina (or the town of Middlemarch).

240 Voyage Out 1st ed 1915

The writing

There are also some important differences from the traditional Victorian novel, even if there is a large cast, and the novel is quite lengthy. Most significant is that the perspective is constantly shifting from person to person. Virginia Woolf is pointing to the relativity of human perception, showing how we experience the world differently depending upon whom we are with, who is influencing us.

I remember when I first read this book I wondered when the action or focus of the book would take shape. But it never did. Now on rereading I can see that Virginia Woolf was mirroring life. So little of it is clear, so much is influenced by context – people and place. The use of free indirect style, as the extracts show, makes these shifts evident.

It took me a while to get into. Writers are told that their protagonist has to want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. (Who said that?) But it is not at all clear that Rachel is the protagonist. The novel opens with a scene in which Helen is sobbing because she is leaving her children for the extended stay in South America. Is Helen to be the main character? And what Rachel wants hardly becomes clear, indeed is not really awoken until Mr Dalloway’s kiss, on p73. But although hard to get into, soon it wouldn’t leave me.

The narrative moved slowly, but with many episodes, through the voyage, the sojourn in Santa Marina and then the conclusion of the English families’ holidays. Rachel’s death clouds their visit, especially for Terence, but other hotel guests move on, return home, refuse proposals, take up causes and so forth.

I loved her descriptive prose from the outset. An example is the storm, experienced in this way:

Their sensations were the sensations of potatoes in a sack on a galloping horse. (68)

Virginia Woolf had been on a voyage to Portugal in 1905. Without that trip she could hardly have described that moment when the ship moves off:

Now a tremor ran through the table, and a light outside swerved. At the same time an electric bell rang sharply again and again.

‘We’re off,’ said Ridley.

A slight but perceptible wave seemed to roll beneath the floor; then it sank; then another came, more perceptible. Lights slid right across the uncurtained window. The ship gave a loud melancholy moan.

‘We’re off!’ said Mr Pepper. Other ships, as sad as she, answered her outside on the river. The chuckling and hissing of water could be plainly heard and the ship heaved so that the steward bringing plates had to balance himself as he drew the curtain. There was a pause. (11-12)

Occasionally I felt that the events moved too slowly, that moving from person to person meant we were given more of their lives than we wanted. But overall I was very pleased to have reread The Voyage Out as part of #Woolfalong: see Heavenali’s blog.

Virginia and Leonard on their wedding day: 23 July 1912

Virginia and Leonard on their wedding day: 23 July 1912

 

In an earlier blogpost for the same series I explored To The Lighthouse.

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf was first published in 1915. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition (1970) in this review. 380 pp

 

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Mrs Dalloway is ageing

Inspired by Woolf Works at the Royal Ballet, which I saw in May, I reread Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. It was one of three of her novels on which the ballet was based. You can see the post about Woolf Works here.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

There was so much to enjoy in this rereading. The narrative is barely evident, just taking the reader through one June day in London in the early 1920s, as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for the party she is giving that evening.

I was struck again, by the richness of Virginia Woolf’s prose: the imagery, the inventiveness of the sentence structure and word order (was Elizabeth Taylor influenced by this aspect of her style?), the movement between the characters, how she leads us slipping between the inner life of different people, finding how they made sense of their lives, of relationships, of other characters. She shows us how our lives are interlinked. And the horror of mental illness also stood out in this reading.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

I focused on the parts of the novel where the characters, Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, consider ageing and what it meant to them that day. Unlike descriptions of physical decline that feature so much on the subject of ageing, in Mrs Dalloway the characters reflect on the perspectives that age brings to their lives. Virginia Woolf was 41 when it was published. This is Clarissa, who is 52:

She felt very young: at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time, was outside, looking in. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (10-11)

One event in her day sets off some uncomfortable responses. Her husband Richard has accepted a lunch invitation, and she was excluded.

‘Fear no more,’ said Clarissa. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun; for the shock of Lady Bruton asking Richard to lunch without her made the moment in which she had stood shiver, as a plant on the riverbed feels the shock of a passing oar and shivers: so she rocked: so she shivered. (34)

Later in the afternoon she tries to recall the intensity of her love, for her friend Sally Seton, when they were barely twenty.

‘She is beneath this roof … She is beneath this roof!’

No, the words meant absolutely nothing to her now. She could not even get an echo of her old emotion. She could not remember getting cold with excitement and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy (now the old feeling began to come back to her as she took out her hairpins, laid them on the dressing table, began to do her hair), with the rooks flaunting up and down in the pink evening light, and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall ‘if it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy’. That was her feeling – Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because she was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton! (39)

Soon she moves on to think about the limited time left to her, for we know she has been ill recently.

Laying her brooch on the table, she had a sudden spasm, as if, while she mused, the icy claws had had the chance to fix in her. She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July, August! Each still remained almost whole, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing-table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there – the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings, seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself. (41-42)

Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin, Lead. 1931. National Portrait Gallery

Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin, Lead. 1931. National Portrait Gallery

And the wisdom that time brings is revealed to Peter Walsh, the man that Clarissa did not marry.

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence – the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly in the light. (88)

Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, it seems, are all they ever have been, not just two people defined by their age. Their consciousness in the present is as much influenced by the events of the past as by the awareness of the present: preparations for the party, the people they meet and the words they exchange alongside memories, what ifs and the histories of their closest relationships.

No wonder it pays to re-read Mrs Dalloway: one finds so much in it, and to dance it. And there is still more (of course)!

188 Mrs D coverMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1925, republished by Penguin Modern Classics in 1964 (page numbers in this post refer to this edition). 215 pp

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About the ballet: In step with Virginia Woolf

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, is from Cymbeline. The full text can be found here at The Poetry Foundation.

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing