Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Radical Sexual Views

Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard were part of the Bloomsbury Group. This group of modernist thinkers were very open in their sexual discussions and practices. Homosexuality was not considered as an aberration and was often discussed. Virginia mentions being abused by her step brother in her childhood years and this led her to a fear of sexual contact with men. After initial attempts with Leonard she lived in a celibate marriage. She also had an affair with Vita Sackville-West for a short time. She seems to have been able to handle physical intimacy with women better than with men. While Virginia had a lively interest in discussing sexual matter she was not an active practitioner. Her views on sex were radical compared to the mores of the times.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Education of Virginia Woolf

There are three important things in the unconventional education of Woolf:
  • Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a man of letters, part of the English "intellectual aristocracy."
  • She never had a formal education but had unlimited access to her father's very extensive library; her brothers were sent to preparatory and public schools and then to Cambridge.
  • She decided at an early age that she would be a writer, while her sister Vanessa decided to devote herself to art.
  • Sir Leslie Stephen had a very successful Cambridge education and was don there before he got married. Males in his social class at the time went to Cambridge or Oxford for their educations as befitted gentleman. His sons followed him to Cambridge but it was not considered right to educate women.
    It was an unusual move to allow such a young girl as Virginia to have full access to a library. It is clear from her letters and diaries that she made good use of this facility. She read copiusly throughout her life apart from times of illness. I am staggered by the number and range of books that she read.
    She decided early that she wanted to be a writer so she is a great example of the old maxim that, Good writers come from good readers...

    Wednesday, November 21, 2012

    Outward Action versus Inner Thoughts

    This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.
    The quote above from Virginia Woolf illustrates the difference between what a man and a woman see as being in a book. The critic mentioned, would almost certainly be a man, who sees that war, action, bravery and heroism are all important things and part of being British and obviously worthy subjects of a book. Woolf's novels focus on the inner thoughts and can be construed as boring and unimportant from the action point of view, but as an illustration of the nuanced thoughts and conversations of women it is significant.

    The move to take such a stance and move away from strong storylines was another radical departure pioneered by Woolf.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2012

    A Radical Approach to Reality in To the Lighthouse

    Virginia Woolf takes a radical departure from the Victorian novel in her book To the Lighthouse. Victorian novels tend to see stories from a single character’s perspective or in the tradition of the Victorian novelists from the author’s own perspective. 

    Toward the end of the novel, Lily reflects that in order to see Mrs. Ramsay character completely—she would need at least fifty pairs of eyes; only then would she understand  every possible angle and nuance. The accumulation of different, even opposing vantage points provides an aggregate truth. The story supports Lily’s assertion. The world is created by an accumulation of perceptions.

    This experimentation and description of the aggregated inner thoughts and minds of the characters is new and daring and is further developed in The Waves.

    Saturday, November 17, 2012

    Woolf the feminist radical

    Another area of Woolf's radicalism is her proto-feminism. Her views were radical for the time and two of her pieces of writing in particular, A Room of Ones Own and Three Guineas were feminist in content and direction. Her thesis that women needed a room where they could think, read and write alone was considered to be disturbing for the status quo. Three Guineas which derides the then current practice of only educating sons was also challenging for the times. Woolf asks what would have happened if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister and shows how society is squandering half of its intellectual capital. Read today these writings appear somewhat tame, but that is because feminism has driven our thought in the direction posited by Woolf.

    Friday, November 16, 2012

    The Radical Element in Mrs Dalloway

    Virginia Woolf published Mrs Dalloway in 1925when modernist literature was emerging as a radical change along with radical modernist painting. James Joyce is a modernist contemporary of Woolf's. Woolf radically altered the then accepted novel form by writing a story which takes place all in one day (Mrs Dalloway).

    Modernist Literature  is defined as literature written between 1899 and 1945, that involved experimentation with the traditional novel format. Modernist literature modifies established ideas on form, character, time and order along with a changed perspectiveand world view.

    The psychological study of Septimus Warren Smith, a returned soldier from World War 1, in Mrs Dalloway, was very exciting and new. Woolf  and her husband Leonard published the writings of Sigmund Freud through the Hogarth Press and was aware of the emerging science of Psychology. We see what is going on in the mind of Smith as he battles his shell shock. It is clear that Smith is unwell as we follow his rambling stream of consciousness thoughts. The unhelpful medical advice given leads him to his death.

    Returned soldiers were meant to be heroes not mad, so Smith's character goes against the jingoistic British post war sentiment . Woolf helped people see that post-traumatic stress disorder, as we would call it now,  was a debilitating psychiatric condition.

    Clarissa Dalloway, the subject of the book demonstrates the upper class English woman of her time. Social, very proper and supportive of her husband. As her day unfolds it is a counter point to the suffering of Smith. Some scholars see Clarissa and Smith as being the two sides of Woolf herself.

     Mrs Dalloway is considered to be one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century, which is a marked turn in opinion from the view of the book at the time it was written. 

    Open to Suggestions

    If you have any suggestions about what you would like to see on this blog let me know. I have been moderating the Yahoo Groups blog on Virginia Woolf for many years so I have some ideas. It seems that discussion groups are getting stale so I'm trying a blog instead. I am very keen to see a lively set of comments here.

    My introduction to the works of Woolf

    I was first introduced to the works of Virginia Woolf when I studied Mrs Dalloway for an undergraduate English paper. I was entranced and hooked on her writing very quickly. Somehow the way she wrote described the way I thought, or the way that we all think, in a stream of consciousness. Since that first exposure I have read all her books, her diaries and her letters. I have visited Monks House, Charleston, Sissinghurst and Knole as part of my pilgrimage as well as the Bloomsbury sites in London. In this blog I will share my thoughts and reactions to Woolf's work and post snippets from her life, letters and works.

    This is not a blog for academics, though they are welcome, it is for the common reader, the lover of life and literature.

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