Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I continue to reread many books, especially those by women from the C20th. This year is a bit of a Virginia Woolf year for me. In the summer I will be spending a week in Cambridge thinking about Virginia Woolf and her women. This means rereading four of her novels and other bits and pieces. It also means lots and lots of thinking and talking about her work, her life, her legacy and life between the wars. All this is completely to my taste.

In her diary as she was writing Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf expressed her ambitions for it.

In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense. [June 19th 1923, p57]

Mrs Dalloway

The events of this novel take place over a single day in the summer of 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative MP, living in Westminster London, is giving a party in the evening. It is June and the day is hot. She leaves her house to fetch some flowers for the party. 

She meets various acquaintances who reappear later, as well as passing close to a damaged First World War veteran who is waiting to see the nerve expert Sir William Bradshaw. Before the party she is visited by a man who she last saw when she was a young woman, having refused to marry him. Peter Walsh has been in India. 

Clarissa is concerned because her husband has accepted an invitation to lunch with Mrs Bruton. This formidable lady seeks his help with a eugenics programme to send good quality people to Canada. And she has dealings with her daughter’s tutor, Miss Kilman, an evangelist, who seems to Clarissa to have stolen Elizabeth. 

The story moves easily alongside Clarissa as well as among the points of view of these and other characters. Among the most striking characters is Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran who is suffering from what we would call PTSD. The doctors say all he needs is rest. Both he and his wife Rezia are made desperate by the absence of help from the medical profession. Septimus commits suicide as Dr Holmes arrives to take him away for his rest cure. 

In the party everything comes together. Clarissa entertains her guests, even the Prime Minister attends (I can’t resist mentioning that he is a figure of gravity, much revered by those attending). Also present are the people she has met during the day and from her past. Sir William Bradshaw arrives, bringing news of his patient’s suicide.

And I am completely wrong to say that the plot is contained within one day. For of course, all those lives have pasts, some interleaved with each other’s and Clarissa’s. And these too we enter to understand the events of the day and the characters. In her diary the author referred to

… how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters [30th August 1923, p60]

And a year later she used a different image to describe this feature of Mrs Dalloway:

… But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; … [August 15th 1924, p65]

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway and the women in the novel.

Clarissa Dalloway is the central character bringing everything together. As the title indicates she is married. Her decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh determined the direction of her mature life. We learn that she is frail, a victim and survivor of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that ravaged the country even as the First World War ended. For this reason I do not like the ruddy-faced portrait on the Oxford edition. Clarissa had slight, thin features.

As she neared the end of composing the book Virginia Woolf worried about Clarissa. She refers to the design she has for the novel and how well it is all progressing.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering and tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. [October 15th 1923, p61]

While it does seem that the people in her circle see her as rather lightweight, Virginia Woolf shows that she has strong liberal values. The character of Miss Kilman (note the name) stands in complete opposition to Clarissa, with her certainties, especially in relation to love and religion. Clarissa reflects on the damage wrought by these things as she contemplates Miss Kilman.

The cruellest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a mackintosh coat, on the landing; love and religion. Had she ever tried to convert anyone herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves? (p107)

Many of the characters are shown up by contrast to Clarissa. The odious Lady Bruton with her ideas about eugenics; Clarissa’s childhood acquaintances, one of whom has remained a mouse (Ellie Henderson) and the other despite great liveliness and unconventionality in her youth is now married to a rich farmer and has many sons (Sally Seton). One feels that Clarissa would have supported Rezia if they had met.

Life, death, sanity, insanity, the social system is all in Mrs Dalloway as Virginia Woolf intended. This novel also prompts us to think about time, its passage and effects, as Big Ben tolls throughout the day. And it is set in London, which despite later bomb damage is still recognisable today. The richness of this novel cannot be overpraised. I look forward to yet another rereading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf published in 1925. I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition. 185 pp

Diary extracts from A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf published by Persephone Books (2012)

Previous posts on Mrs Dalloway

I have twice before written about Mrs Dalloway on Bookword.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing in July 2015

The second Mrs Dalloway in July 2019

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The Second Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The first line jolts the reader:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself. (146)

Gloves? Surely that should be flowers

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. (5)

The gloves are from Virginia Woolf’s short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street  (1923)The flowers are from the opening line of the novel Mrs Dalloway, published later in 1925.

Wednesday 19thJune is Dalloway Day. I contribute this post (somewhat revised from its earlier connection to #Woolfalong in 2016) which has been popular since it first appeared. 

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street  by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway appears in Virginia Woolf’s fiction on several occasions. First in The Voyage Out  (1915), then in the short story, then in the novel and finally in several short stories written after Mrs Dalloway. We can conclude that Virginia Woolf found her useful to her writing.

Mrs Dalloway does indeed buy some gloves right at the end of this story, which is less than 8 pages long. The gloves are French, white, half an inch over the elbow with pearl buttons. As in the novel we follow Clarissa through the streets from her home in Westminster. 

The story is an early experiment in stream of consciousness, a technique to convey the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness experienced by Clarissa.  She leaves her house, meets an old friend, remembers the death of another, notices the other people in Bond Street and enters the glove shop. Virginia Woolf records the variety of thoughts in Clarissa’s head, memories, impressions, things she observes and muses upon, including the feeling of familiarity about the other customer in the glove shop. And then …

There was a violent explosion in the street outside. The shop-woman cowered behind the counters. But Clarissa, sitting very upright, smiled at the other lady. ‘Miss Anstruther!’ she exclaimed. (153)

And so the story ends.

The appearances of Mrs Dalloway

We first met Clarissa on the ship sailing to South America in The Voyage Out. She and her husband join the Euphrosyne in the stormy passage from Lisbon to the African coast. Clarissa is portrayed as slight, rather empty-headed but also generous and gracious, a striker of attitudes.

‘It’s so like Whistler!’ she exclaimed, with a wave towards the shore, as she shook Rachel by the hand … (36)

After her departure Mrs Dalloway is described by a more modern woman: 

‘She was quite nice, but a thimble-pated creature.’ Helen continued. ‘I’ve never heard such nonsense! Chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter – fish and the Greek alphabet! – never listened to a word any one said – chock-full of idiotic theories about the way to bring up children. ‘(79)

I love the ‘thimble-pated creature’. 

In the short story she is more fleshed out, has more of an interior life, and indeed her inner life is the point of the story. 

She mounted the little hill lightly. The air stirred with energy. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Piccadilly and Arlington Street and the Mall seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, upon waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To ride; to dance; she had adored all that. Or going [for] long walks in the country, talking about books, what to do with one’s life, for young people were amazingly priggish – Oh the things one had said! But one had conviction. Middle age is the devil. People like Jack will never know that, she thought; for he never once thought of death, never, they said, knowing he was dying. And now can never mourn – how did it go? – a head grown grey . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain . . . have drunk their cup a round or two before. . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain! She held herself upright. (148)

She has moved from thinking about the Admiralty, to the park, her youthful self, and the death of her friend Jack to quoting Shelley’s poem Adonais. (Also quoted by her in The Voyage Out, where she exclaims ‘I feel there’s almost everything one wants in “Adonais”.’ (40) The short story touches upon genealogy, the social changes brought by the war, the possibility of generosity to the shop woman, class; in short many of the themes of Mrs Dalloway.

The most significant later addition found in the novel is Septimus, a damaged victim of the war who brings a sense of tragedy and inhumanity to Mrs Dalloway. However the damage inflicted by the war was present in Mrs Dalloway’s expedition to buy gloves. It is a lesser, more sketchy idea that Mrs Dalloway expresses as she makes her purchase: 

Thousands of young men had died that things might go on. (153)

The story grew as Virginia Woolf noted in her diary. ‘Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide,’ (October 1922, 52).

Through writing Mrs DallowayVirginia Woolf developed what she called her ‘tunnelling process, by which I tell the past by instalments, as I have need of it.’ Not surprisingly Mrs Dalloway was turning out to be a richer character than her earlier appearances in The Voyage Out or Bond Street.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering, too tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support.  (October 1923. 61)

And as she worked on the novel she reflected on her writing processes, what she was achieving. After returning from Charleston one evening in August 1924 she recorded:

I don’t often trouble now to describe cornfields and groups of harvesting women in loose blues and reds, and little staring yellow frocked girls. …All my nerves stood upright, flushed, electrified (what’s the word?) with the sheer beauty – beauty surrounding and superabounding. So that one almost resents it, not being capable of catching it all and holding it all at the moment. One’s progress through life is made immensely interesting by trying to grasp all these developments as one passes. I feel as if I were putting out my fingers tentatively on (here is Leonard, …) August 1924. 65)

One can make the argument that Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street is an early exercise in grasping all of that and in Mrs Dalloway she demonstrates her confident use of it.

Clarissa has walk-on parts in some of the stories written after the novel. In her diaries Virginia Woolf noted that Mrs D  ‘ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ (August 1922, 48). Clarissa’s party was a device for Virginia Woolf to explore the responses of a number of people in social situations. She wrote these while she was mulling over To The Lighthouse. Readers of that novel will be familiar with the extended evening meal in the first section of the book. By the time she wrote To The Lighthouse she could write of the inner world of several characters in the Ramsay household.

In The New Dress, I especially like the awkwardness experienced by Mabel Waring. Already lacking confidence and with a husband who has no interest in her, her social isolation is explored in the context of the wrong dress at Clarissa’s party. And I notice the disdain with which Mr Serle treats Miss Anning when they are introduced in Together and Apart. The interaction between the two is painfully observed.

There is so much to gain from reading these stories, especially in tracking the development of Virginia Woolf’s writing. 

Virginia Woolf c 1912 by Vanessa Bell

More Mrs Dalloway

The character was also drawn on by Michael Cunningham in The Hours, which was an early title for Mrs Dalloway

There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour. 

It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century. (9)


So, New York, twenty years ago, not the effects of the Great War on London, but of HIV/Aids on the US.

As Clarissa works so well for writers, perhaps you have written a Mrs Dalloway story? Perhaps you will now?

Texts

A Haunted House, the complete shorter fiction by Virginia Woolf. Introduction by Helen Simpson, Edited by Susan Dick Published by Vintage in 2003. 314pp

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1915

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1925

The Hours by Michael Cunningham published in 1998. Paperback edition by 4thEstate. 226pp

Related posts

To the Lighthouseby Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Outby Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway is ageing

There are 7 more posts on this blog that explore Virginia Woolf, in words, in dance and in art. Click on her name in the wordcloud to find more.

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Flush by Virginia Woolf

Is it a biography? Is it a novel? No! It’s a dog. It’s a pedigree red cocker spaniel. Flush belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and featured in two of her poems as well as in her correspondence with Robert Browning. He is a literary dog, and Virginia Woolf wrote his biography, an innovative mixture of fiction and fact.

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Flush’s life began in about 1840 in a village with a loving mistress, who gave him to the poet Elizabeth Barrett. Flush gave up the pleasure of the countryside to live in Wimpole Street and to become devoted to his new mistress. He had to learn the life of a pampered housedog, was torn apart by jealousy of Robert Browning when he began to visit, and by the terror of being dognapped.

This is not an anthropomorphic story. Virginia Woolf does not make Flush the dog into an almost human. He has values, affections, emotions, and confusions. But these are rooted in his dog-ness. The reader’s attention is never very far from the concerns of the humans.

As well as mixing fact and fiction Virginia Woolf was exploring the world from the point of view of a dog. That meant that she had to focus on smells. Luckily the Brownings eloped to Italy, which drew from Virginia Woolf some of her most descriptive writing.

But Flush wandered off into the streets of Florence to enjoy the rapture of smell. He threaded his path through main streets and back streets, through squares and alleys, by smell. He nosed his way from smell to smell; the rough, the smooth, the dark, the golden, where they bake bread, where the women sit combing their hair, where the bird-cages are piled high on the causeway, where the wine spills itself in dark red stains on the pavement, where leather smells and harness and garlic, where cloth is beaten, where vine leaves tremble, where men sit and drink and spit and dice – he ran in and out, always with his nose to the ground, drinking in the essence; or with his nose in the air vibrating with the aroma. (86-7)

And even more than the technique of writing with her nose, the writer was looking at the world in an innovative way, and in particular using a witness to the experiences of a woman poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Flush is a guide for the reader, for example by his reaction to Elizabeth’s fearsome father who visits every evening to check that she has eaten. Having benefited from his mistress’s small appetite, Flush slinks away, leaving Elizabeth to her father’s approval. Through Flush’s story we can look at her life as a young woman under her father’s tyrannical rule, at her time as an invalid, at her growing affection for Robert Browning, and finally at their life in Italy. There is the subtle parallel between a young woman’s life and a dog’s. And Flush is a witness to the social and economic contrasts in London, cheek by jowl so to speak, the poverty that exists adjacent to Wimpole Street. This is not a silly or sweet book.

Publishing Flush

Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) was experimental and had been tough to produce. Flush was written ‘by way of a change’ (diary 23.12.32). As she worked on it she felt restricted by the imperative to complete it, ‘that abominable dog Flush’ (diary 3.1.33) wanting to get on with The Years.

She rightly predicted that in the longer term Flush would be seen as less significant than many of her other novels, describing it in her frustration as ‘that silly book’ (diary 28.4.33).

Virginia Woolf was not at all sure how Flush would be received. She was afraid that readers would react to it as if it were a sentimental book, and that her reputation would be damaged.

Flush will be out on Thursday and I shall be very much depressed, I think, by the kind of praise. They’ll say it’s “charming”, delicate, ladylike. And it will be popular. Well now I must let this slip over me without paying it any attention. I must concentrate on The Pargiters – or Here and Now. I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler; for one thing it’s not true. But they’ll all say so. And I shall very much dislike the popular success of Flush .No, I must say to myself, this is a mere wisp, a veil of water; and so create, hardly, fiercely, as I feel now more able to do than ever before. (diary 2.10.33)

It has fewer devotees than To the Lighthouse, or Mrs Dalloway, or many of her other books. But it is a serious experiment and there is much joy, humour and smelliness in it.

Flush the dog

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I was reminded of Flush the spaniel recently by an article in the Paris Review in October by Erin Schwartz. You can find it here. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote two poems to her dog: one To Flush, My Dog is long, twenty verses long. You can find it here. The poem extols the dog’s virtues as a friend. The other Flush or Faunus celebrates Flush’s ability to comfort his mistress when she is upset. Here’s a link. Neither poem is especially striking.

I chose to read Flush because my family has just been increased by a fast-growing cocker spaniel. When we chose the breed, I had forgotten that literary Flush was a spaniel. Our puppy is not red but we think she is beautiful all the same. Her name is Lupin. I will not be writing a novel about her.

NB: on several occasions Virginia Woolf has Flush eating grapes. I have been told in puppy classes that grapes are poison for dogs.

Red Cocker Spaniel 8th Sept 2018 by Canarian via WikiCommons

Lupin October 2018

Flush by Virginia Woolf, first published by the Hogarth Press in 1933. I read the Oxford World Classics edition. 132pp

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Books with Mrs or Miss in the title

What on earth accounts for the popularity of posts on Bookword blog, reviews of novels with Mrs or Miss in the title? Perhaps these books sell better as well. I can see no particular connection, except that nearly all the books I mention are by women. But then I tend to read more books by women than men. Perhaps you can find some connections?

Here are some brief notes and links to any posts on Bookword.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

This novel has always been one of the most popular in the older women in fiction series. It concerns a widow with a neglectful family who becomes a resident at the Claremont Hotel in London. She feels the need to impress the other residents and so invites a young acquaintance to pretend to be her nephew. The pains of old age are deftly drawn as the story reaches its conclusion. You can find the longer review here.

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf (1922)

This is actually a short story, an early experiment in stream of consciousness, a technique to convey the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness experienced by Clarissa Dalloway. She leaves her house, meets an old friend, remembers the death of another, notices the other people in Bond Street and enters the glove shop. The post about the short story can be found here.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway appeared three times in Virginia Woolf’s writing: this short story, the novel that bears her name in 1925 and in her early novel The Voyage Out (review can be found here).

Miss Ranskill Comes Home byBarbara Euphan Todd (1946)

This is a Rip Van Winkle story by the creator of Worzel Gummage. Miss Ranskill returns home to find Britain in the middle of World War Two. She is startled by significant changes, in topics of conversation and vocabulary, the necessity of coupons to buy clothes and food, the need for blackout and the daily concerns of middle class women. Readers were being invited to look again at things they took for granted and to reassess their reactions and their values. You can read more about this novel here.

Miss Mole by EH Young (1930)

Miss Mole is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 1930s. She is not very young, pretty, innocent or socially well placed. She seems to delight in being less than straightforward. She takes on the housekeeping for a difficult family and helps them all. The novel is concerned with the nature of morality and the contrast between received morality, socially accepted behaviour and Miss Mole’s true morality. The review can be found here.

And you might also like …

Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (1938)

Published by Persephone Books this charming Cinderella story takes a governess of restricted experience and plunges her into the high life in London as the right hand woman for a nightclub singer, Miss La Fosse. I do not know of anyone who read this book and who had a bad reaction to it.

There are also books with Mr in the title

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson and translated by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

The Mr Men series by Roger Hargreaves

And no doubt you can think of many more books with Mrs, Miss or Mt in the title, including some to recommend.

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Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf

In the shopping street in Chichester there was bunting and a huge banner, a most populist way to advertise a very refined subject: VIRGINIA WOOLF: AN EXHIBITION INSPIRED BY HER WRITING. I was in Chichester to visit the Pallant House Gallery. I wanted to know what art had been inspired by one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. And to look at it.

The celebratory street presence of Virginia Woolf wasn’t the only thing that surprised me about the exhibition. After my first tour around the gallery I realised that I was experiencing a very strange sensation. This must be what it feels like to be a man, to have the world reflected back to you as you see it through men’s eyes. Most exhibitions, anyway. But here were 80 artists and every one of them was a woman. Everyone. I recognised the world they showed me, the faces, the landscapes, the portraits, the interiors, the conflicts. This was my territory.

This is what the organisers say about the exhibition:

Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings

A major exhibition featuring 80 female artists from 1854 to the present day, centred on the pioneering writings of celebrated author Virginia Woolf. Through a wide range of work by artists including Barbara Hepworth, Vanessa Bell, Gwen John, Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun and Louise Bourgois, the exhibition shows how Woolf’s perspectives on feminism and creativity have remained relevant to a community of creative women across time: visual artists working in photography, painting, sculpture and film who have sought to record the vast scope of female experience and to shape alternative ways for women to be.

You may be wondering how art and words go together, different art forms that use different media. I remind you that it was ballet that revealed so much about three of Virginia Woolf ‘s novels in WoolfWorks.

The ideas expressed by Virginia Woolf in her novels and essays found echoes and development in the art on display in this exhibition. Identity, what moulds it? What is its function? How is it different in public and private spaces? In what ways can and do women relate to landscape and to the ideas of home? What is it, to be a woman?

Some artists were already familiar: Laura Knight, Dora Carrington, Winifred Nicholson and others who often show us women and children in the landscape, an inhabited space where woman can now be as free as men always have been. Not confined by or limited to the home.

The portraits showed women experimenting with different ways of representing themselves to others in self-portraits and portraits. Gwen John’s confident, confronting self-portrait; Dod Proctor turned away from our gaze, and other portraits, especially of and by Vanessa Bell. In pride of place, almost an object of veneration, there was her portrait of Virginia Woolf among her books, writing, in her home. At the entrance to the show there was a working sketch for the pace setting for Virginia Woolf at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

There were more paintings of interiors, still lifes mostly, often with no people present. These often related the interior of the home through a window to the outside, or referred to the residents through their furnishings and belongings, or because it was a woman’s view. I want to find out more about Jane Simone Bussy. Her use of colour was subtle and very engaging.

Quotations reminded us how important a room of one’s own is, especially to women writers. And so there were the designs of household objects, fabrics, china and book covers by her sister and others.

You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men.  … This freedom is only a beginning. With whom are you going to share it and on what terms? [from Professions for Women, an essay by Virginia Woolf published in 1931]

I am still thinking about what I saw, how magnificent Virginia Woolf was and how her influence is deep in me, and happily deep in our culture too. I have reviewed most of her novels on Bookword, by the way.

Congratulations to Laura Smith, who created the show for Tate St Ives, Pallant House Gallery, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings is at Pallant House Galleryuntil 16thSeptember 2018.

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A Tribute to Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin died on 23rd January 2018. We lost two inspirations on that day. Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter, also died. Hugh Masekela was my sound track in the ‘90s. In exile he played his accessible and lively jazz. I heard him once at the Town and Country Club in London and again at the Free Nelson Mandela Concert in Hyde Park in June 2008. Remember Bring him back home (Nelson Mandela) and Soweto Blues? Both involved in the struggles for freedom and equality.

Humanity of Ursula le Guin

The South African Hugh Masekela and the American writer Ursula Le Guin shared a belief in the power of the imagination, and also the determination not to compromise democratic principles. Masekela endured the traumas of apartheid and exile.

Ursula Le Guin endured treatment as an outsider, as an “other”. As a woman at Radcliffe in the 1940s she was not quite at Harvard. As a woman writer she was treated with disdain and was ignored. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy she was dismissed. Yet she held onto her ambitions and her determination and has written powerfully about voice, ageing, beauty, death, women writers and the publishing industry. In her tribute Margaret Atwood praised Ursula Le Guin’s thought experiment. I salute her long career fighting against exclusion and discrimination.

Ursula le Guin the storyteller

Her narrative talents are evident in all her fiction. Many, like me, have been attracted to her novels for young people, in particular The Earthsea novels, and gloried in the stories well told. There are important moral ideas in these novels, about growing up, responsibility, self-awareness and the power of language.

I would recommend the Earthsea Trilogy to anyone who has not read them, as well as her many books and short stories for adults.

Ursula le Guin’s approach

In an interview with John Wray in the Paris Review from 2013 she reveals her essential interest as a writer.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. …

INTERVIEWER

What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences?

LE GUIN

Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.

We can read this playfulness as she tries out various ideas about what society might be like if one element was different. One example that appeals to me is The Left Hand of Darkness which explores what a society might be like that is not founded upon gender distinctions. The Dispossessed plays with ideas about anarchy and Natasha Walter, writer and activist, recently picked it as her life-changing book.

I suspect that searching for one answer was a common masculine approach to writing in the mid-20th century and one reason why she was marginalised. Her work was described as science fiction or fantasy, labels used to marginalise the writing. Yet it was precisely her ability to open up questions, to consider other possibilities, other lives, to challenge ‘othering’ and discrimination that appealed to me when I first met her writing.

Ursula le Guin on writing

In addition to her fiction Ursula Le Guin has written many essays, and provided some guidance for storywriters. Steering the Craft (1998) has the subtitle Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator and the Mutinous Crew. In this book she provides many insights for writers and writing groups, including the importance of sound and rhythm in writing. She quotes Virginia Woolf often, explaining

I find her thought and work wonderful in itself, useful to anyone thinking about how to write. The rhythm of Woolf’s prose is to my ear the subtlest and strongest in English fiction. (47)

I have referred to her wonderful essays in Words are my Matter in previous blogposts, especially her ideas on imagination and how it is not the same as creativity and why writers need it and how to develop it in two posts: A Writer trains her Imagination and Imagination and The Operating Instructions.

Ursula Le Guin has referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends by endorsing the central significance of literature.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6 Words are My Matter)

She has plenty more to say in these issues about a range of topics.

Some Playfulness

I love her way of spiking some worn-out arguments, like the use of the generic pronoun “he” to include “she”. It doesn’t.

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

This is from another collection of essays: The Wave in the Mind (another quote from VW). She writes well on ageing too:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.

This is another example of her ability to magically combine playfulness, imagination and seriousness. I wish I had read that essay when we were writing about ageing.

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

I will miss both formative influences – Ursula Le Guin’s and Hugh Masekela’s. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have been listening to his music while I have been writing this post. Thank goodness we have their recordings and books to return to.

Some references

I must remind readers of the BrainPickings blog which present writers’ ideas so well.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula Le Guin (2004) published by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin first published in 1969. I have an edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

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Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Reading non-fiction by women for the Decades Project brings me to a classic. For March I planned to consider a book published between 1920-29, so here is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf wrote two papers for two Cambridge women’s colleges in October 1928, and combined them into the six chapters of this short book. She starts in this way:

But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? (5)

She made the connection on the next page with this famous line:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

The 1920s and A Room of One’s Own

In the first decade of last century the only nonfiction by a woman that I could find were Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening books. Eight years of suffragette activity, the Great War, ten years of votes for some women and peacetime progress came between A Room of One’s Own and Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography My Own Story. By 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction had been removed, claims Virginia Woolf with her tongue in her cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (111)

What struck me as I read this essay for the third time was Virginia Woolf ‘s description of how deep the impediments were entrenched in English society. It is a blast against exclusiveness – ‘how unpleasant it is to be locked out’ (25).

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is not gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my min. (76)

The novelist and A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf brings her skills as a novelist to make the case that women’s lack of financial independence has been an underlying cause of the failure to produce fiction in the past. She follows an imaginary young woman, Mary Seton, on an day in Oxbridge, dining first at a man’s college, where she has been denied entry to the library and shouted at for being on the grass. Then she is entertained to supper at a women’s college, altogether a more meagre affair. She visits the British Museum (meaning the Library) where she looks for books on men and women. The books on women are all written by men. Men, she observes, had also taken it upon themselves to define what women could write about – and certainly they could not write critically of men. Some of her quotations of men writing about women make your eyes water.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (37)

I think of all those women speaking out in the #MeToo campaign about how they were abused by men. We can understand the abusive behaviour as serving to magnify a man’s natural size.

She invents a sister for Shakespeare and shows how, despite Judith’s talents being equal to her brother’s, she would not have been able to succeed in the theatre in the 17th century. In her lyrically argued prose, Virginia Woolf explores the state of mind women necessary to write fiction. Having been required to attend to a restricted sphere, the new art form of the novel provided the opportunity to use their understanding of human interactions. She notes three of the first novelists used male names: Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot. She also pointed out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

The core of her argument is that women need financial independence and privacy. Since 1928 it has become very clear that the problems for women are deeper than £500 a year (or its equivalent) and a room of one’s own with a key. Deeper even than the pram in the hallway. We must still struggle against male patriarchy especially now we have come to understand how it is bolstered by physical abuse and sexual violence.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my falling apart Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

The Decades Project

In 2017 I considered one novel by a woman each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for each decade. For next month I am hoping to find my copy of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the first two books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

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Five great covers for five recommended novels

According to Charles Dickens, ‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’ On the whole the best I expect is that a book’s cover does not detract from its contents. But some book covers enhance what lies inside. And a few are works of art on their own. In this post I celebrate some excellent covers together with links to my reviews of the books.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

This short but lyrical novel plays with the idea that Crow, from the poems of Ted Hughes, comes to assist a family through their grief when the mother dies. Sometimes it is amusing, sometimes poignant, and everybody I know who has read it has been moved by it.

The sparseness and simplicity of the cover design exactly matches the book’s contents. The cover was designed in-house by Faber using an illustration by Eleanor Crow.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter, published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Among its many achievements, this classic novel displays Virginia Woolf’s perceptiveness. Here is an example, as Mrs Ramsay concludes the book she reads to her youngest son James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

The cover of the first edition was by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. It was published by the Woolfs’ own Hogarth Press.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) published by the Hogarth Press. Available in the Penguin Modern Classics edition (1964) 237pp

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a traditional fairy tale, but The Sleeping Beauty is the story of an awakening. The central characters are not in the first flush of youth but love manages to awaken them from inner deadness. It is set in a seaside backwater and begins with a dreamy walk along the cliff. This cover was an inspired choice for an early Virago edition. By Winifred Nicholson it is called The Gate to the Isles (Blue Gate) and was painted in 1980. It is on display at the Falmouth Gallery until mid-September.

Many readers find the more recent cover designs for Elizabeth Taylor’s novels insipid in contrast to the original Virago choices such as this one.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1953, now available in the Virago Modern Classics series.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It was the cover that first attracted me to this novel. Its intricate, dense and convoluted patterning of natural objects reflects the storyline. It was designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris. Morris was contemporaneous with the setting of the novel. It’s a mystery and an investigation about beliefs and science all at the same time.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. 418pp

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I reviewed this children’s classic recently accompanied by a photo of the cover of my copy. Many people commented on it, saying they had read it in a much drabber schools editions. This cover captures the rituals of the Seal people north of Roman Britain. It was also inspired by the mysteries and dark dangers of the ancient world. It is by C Walter Hodges.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954 by Oxford University Press and still on their list.

Related post

Thinking about … Book Covers was a blogpost from January 2014, which includes more examples and links to archives etc.

A post from Louise Harnby’s blog The Proofreader’s Parlour: The Design Essentials: creating a stand-out book cover. Advice for authors. It draws on work for Salt Books that frequently have captivating covers.

Over to you

Do you have any covers to nominate as adding something to the book? Or is an exceptionally pleasing cover?

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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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A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

You know the most famous line from Virginia Woolf’s essay:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

I sigh with satisfaction when I open one of my copies of this essay. It was published in 1928, between Orlando and The Waves. In this post I ask what has changed after 88 years.

Virginia Wolf suggested that in 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction were removed, but I detect a slight tongue in cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (111)

Have the gains in women’s fiction been as expected?

283 Room VBell's cover

This is my fifth contribution to the #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog.

A Room of One’s Own.

The essay originated in talks given by Virginia Woolf at Girton College, Cambridge and Newnham College, Oxford in 1928 and she wrote more on the topic of women and fiction in Three Guineas, published in 1938.

In six chapters, just over 100 pages, Virginia Woolf describes what she found when she researched the question of women and fiction, and what was known about women’s lives. She does this through the fictional account by Mary Seton of some days in Oxbridge and London as she prepares for the lectures. She uses the device of a fictional sister for William Shakespeare, Judith, who ends up drowning herself in the Thames for daring to follow in her brother’s path. She builds a picture of the many influences that kept women from writing or publishing. And she considers why those four great novelists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were able to write, noting that three of them used male names: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot.

The core of her argument is that women needed money and their own room, to provide freedom from want and anxiety, and the necessary privacy. She was also keen to point out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

283 RooOO cover

It’s better now …

Some things are better now for women in fiction. We no longer think it strange that some women can earn a living, even a fortune, through their skills as writers: JK Rowling, EL James, Suzanne Collins, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins. Nor are we surprised that women are shortlisted and win some of the most prestigious literary prizes; or hold positions as Professors of Literature or of Creative Writing, or run publishing houses.

People who express sexist opinions can expect to be challenged. It is no longer acceptable to keep women off the lawns, out of libraries, out of colleges or the professions. At least not in the UK.

… but not a lot.

But things have not improved as much as might have been hoped after nearly a century of the vote (1918), and 41 years of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). And indeed since the publication of many, many volumes of fiction by women since the first novels, such as Evelina by Fanny Burney (1778).

But oh dear, how entrenched is the view that women’s fiction is of less value than male fiction! That’s why we still need Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. And oh dear, how deeply embedded is the idea that Virginia Woolf expressed in A Room of One’s Own:

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (37)

And still we do not find it strange that books by women are not published, read or reviewed in the same proportion as men’s books. I need only refer you to the VIDA statistics reporting the disparity in gender of reviewers and authorship of works reviewed. These figures have been compiled for several years, to show how bad the situation is, and how slowly it is improving. The most recent count (2015) can be found here.

VIDA is a non-profit feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape and to amplifying historically-marginalized voices, including people of color; writers with disabilities; and queer, trans and gender nonconforming individuals. [from the Vida website]

And …

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

The truth of the original idea, that income and privacy are necessary to the creative process is still evident. My previous post was about Jean Rhys, and in it I challenge the romantic idea that poverty and artistic creativity go together. You can link to it here.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1928, and in the Penguin Modern Classic edition, used in for this post, in 1945. 112 pp

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

To the Lighthouse in January

The Voyage Out in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street in May

Orlando in July

 

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