On This Day

“So long as you write
what you wish to write,
that is all that matters;
and whether it matters
for ages
or only for hours,
nobody can say.

But to sacrifice
a hair of the head
of your vision,
a shade of its colour,
in deference
to some Headmaster
with a silver pot in his hand
or to some professor
with a measuring-rod up his sleeve,
is the most abject treachery.”

 

~Virginia Woolf
A Room of One’s Own, 1929

 

Today is the birthday of the novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, born Virginia Stephen in London (1882). She never went to school, but her father chose books for her to read from his own library. She was only allowed to move out of her family home after her father’s death, when she was 22. She moved into a house with her brothers and sister, and instead of writing letters about what she’d been reading, she began to write literary criticism for the Times Literary Supplement, and she became one of the most accomplished literary critics of the era.

Woolf believed that the problem with 19th-century literature was that novelists had focused entirely on the clothing people wore and the food they ate and the things they did. She believed that the most mysterious and essential aspects of human beings were not their possessions or their habits, but their interior emotions and thoughts.

She considered her first few novels failures, but then in 1922, she began to read the work of Marcel Proust, who had just died that year. That moved her to write her first masterpiece: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), about all the thoughts that pass through the mind of a middle-aged woman on the day she gives a party. Woolf went on to write many more novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931), but she was also one of the greatest essayists of her generation. In her long essay about women and literature, A Room of One’s Own (1929), she wrote: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

 

Photo: Virginia Woolf (née Stephen); Angelica Garnett (née Bell); National Portrait Gallery, London

 

 

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~ by eaesthete on 01/25/10.

10 Responses to “On This Day”

  1. This came at a particularly good time for me. Thanks.

  2. ‘To thine own self be true’, surely one of the most difficult of undertakings for most of us. We are so easily swayed by the influence and opinion of others, even those we don’t respect.

    I have always kept a copy of A Room of One’s Own on my desk. Whilst considering Virginia, thought Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Hours’ a superb novel. Could never quite manage Proust on my own, but did so most enjoyably with the insightful Alain de Botton’s wonderful ‘How to Proust Can Change Your Life’.

    Viva la revolution!

  3. I had to come back and read this again.

    It’s just right. Thank you.

    I very much admire what you’re doing here.

  4. very, very nice and sensitive post. i enjoyed this very much.

  5. I have wondered many times how Virginia would have fared with modern pharmacology. Would she have been able to keep the voices in their own place? Would the drugs have dulled her genius? I am grateful for her writing. A room of her own is an amazing, blazing, glorious manifesto. We take days—even the hours—for granted. To have suffered for art, makes me stand in awe.

  6. Chère Suzanne:

    I see by the right-hand sidebar (almost at the bottom) that you are an admirer of “To the Lighthouse”. I was wondering if you have ever had the pleasure of listening to the recorded book version read by Dame Phyllida Law? It is truly magnificent. I keep a copy on my iPod and have listened to it several times. There’s always something new to find; something that was missed before.

    I never knew that Proust had inspired Woolf; that is definitely food for thought. As I work my way through the former, I will now look for foreshadowings of the latter.

    The Utah Mixologist

    • Jim,

      I’ve not heard that recording but your recommendation has prompted me to look into it. As to the influence of Proust, it never ceases to amaze me, how many he has touched. I, oftentimes, wish I could run away somewhere with little more than a journal and a copy of À la recherche du temps perdu. It continues to be a fantasy.

      • Suzanne,

        That would be nice, especially if the destination included a well supplied cocktail bar. I’ve been slowly reading À la recherche for several years, and am only about half way through Le Côté de Guermantes. It has greatly improved my French reading fluency, though, as well as my appreciation for Marcel’s writing and observational skills.

        -Jim

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