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Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf 

I thought I had read all the novels by Virginia Woolf and was enjoying re-reading them. But I can find no record of my reactions to Jacob’s Room, there is no entry in my reading record, begun in April 2006, and no post on Bookword blog. When I began reading it, all I could recall was that some of it was located in Scarborough, and that Jacob had died in the First World War. I had not read it before.

The ending reminded me of those paintings by Van Gogh of empty shoes, or William Nicholson’s painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s boots, which say so much about the absent wearer. Jacob’s mother is clearing his room:

‘What am I to do with these, Mr Bonamy?’
She held out a pair of Jacob’s shoes. (168)

Post card of ‘A Pair of Leather Boots’ by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. Amsterdam.

These painters were in their way doing on their canvases what Virginia Woolf was doing in Jacob’s Room, her third novel. She was breaking away from the traditional narrative and portrait of a character. Conventional fiction showed appearance, motivation, action, consequences and so forth. Rather she was evoking a sense of Jacob, his times, and the loss of the young men in the war through glimpses of Jacob. And she was presenting these glimpses as we might experience meeting a new person: incomplete, with restricted context, mediated through others.

Jacob’s Room

In her diaries Virginia Woolf recorded that ‘I think Jacob was a necessary step for me, in working free’ [October 14th 1922]. At that time she was beginning work on Mrs Dalloway and had just decided upon the name of her shell-shocked character. In the later novel she famously used a new style of writing from the interior of her characters: sometimes called stream of consciousness.

In Jacob’s Room she is introducing a different innovation in the writing of fiction. The reader is invited to draw their portrait of Jacob from glimpses, observing how other people react to him, starting with a reference in a letter from his mother describing his behaviour on the beach in Cornwall. This is followed up by a painter who indicates to his brother, sent to find him, where Jacob is among the rocks. Finally we see him exploring rock pools and crabs. 

And so we follow Jacob through the eyes of others, growing up, going to Cambridge, later in rooms in London, on holiday in the Scilly Isles and in Greece. We meet his friends, his lovers, and see his mother becoming more and more distant from him.

Before it was published, Virginia Woolf confided in her diary that she feared people would think it was ‘mad, I suppose: a disconnected rhapsody’ [June 23rd 1922]. The idea of a rhapsody is useful. Passages are poetic, lyrical, such as the view from the boat sailing to the Scilly Isles.

Strangely enough, you could smell violets, or if violets were impossible in July, they must grow something very pungent on the mainland then. The mainland – not so very far off – you could see clefts in the cliffs, white cottages, smoke going up – wore an extraordinary look of calm, of sunny peace, as if wisdom and piety had descended upon the dwellers there. Now a cry sounded, as of a man calling pilchards in a main street. It wore an extraordinary look of piety and peace, as if old men smoked by the door, and girls stood, hands on hips, at the well, and horses stood; as if the end of the world had come, and cabbage fields and stone walls, and coast-guard stations, and, above all, the white sand bays and the waves breaking unseen by any one, rose to heaven in a kind of ecstasy. (45-6)

Some of the passages set in London are also elegiac.

The lamps of London uphold the dark as upon the points of burning bayonets. The yellow canopy sinks and swells over the great four-poster. Passengers in the mail-coaches running into London in the eighteenth century looked through leafless branches and saw it flaring beneath them. The light burns behind yellow blinds and pink blinds, and above fanlights, and down in basement windows. The street market in Soho is fierce with light. Raw meat, china mugs, and silk stockings blaze in it. Raw voices wrap themselves round the flaring gas-jets. Arms akimbo, they stand on the pavement bawling – Messrs Kettle and Wilkinson; their wives sit in the shop, furs wrapped round their necks, arms folded, eyes contemptuous. Such faces as one sees. The little man fingering the meat must have squatted before the fire in innumerable lodging-houses, and heard and seen and known so much that it seems to utter itself even volubly from dark eyes, loose lips, as he fingers the meat silently, his face sad as a poet’s, and never a sing-song. Shawled women carry babies with purple eyelids; boys stand at street corners; girls look across the road – rude illustrations, pictures in a book whose pages we turn over and over as if we should at last find what we look for. Every face, every shop, bedroom window, public-house, and dark square is a picture feverishly turned – in search of what? It is the same with books. What do we seek through millions of pages? Still hopefully turning the pages – oh, here is Jacob’s room. (92)

Such a passage, such a rich text, rich in imagery, and references, and movement! And then just at the end she reminds us that we are readers. 

It appears that Virginia Woolf modelled Jacob in part upon her much-loved brother Thoby. When their father died in 1904, she joined with her sister Vanessa and Thoby moving to a house in Gordon Square, where they entertained Thoby’s Cambridge friends. It was the start of the Bloomsbury Group. Thoby died of typhoid in 1906 after a trip to Greece. The young men of his generation bore the brunt of the First World War, and Jacob’s Room pays homage to them and that world and the people who were destroyed by the war. 

She was nervous about the reception of Jacob’s Room, as for all her novels. But she reflected in her diary after she had shown it to her husband, and most significant critic, Leonard:

There is no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that it excites me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise. [July 26th 1922]

First edition cover

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, published in 1922. I used my copy of the Penguin Modern Classic edition (1965). 168pp

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