“Look here…we’ll dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy. I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river…”
If I gave you a list of writers and asked you to choose which one wrote that piece of whispered seduction, I am willing to bet you that you wouldn’t have chosen Virginia Woolf. But she did– in the midst of her grand love affair with the aristocratic writer Vita Sackville-West. But this passionate individual is not who most of us meet when we first encounter Woolf in high school and college English classes, where she is revered on a pedestal as an icon and the fierce intellect that she was.
And while this is deserved many times over, I think that this ends up meaning that she is regarded as fearsome and unapproachable. I agree with a recent post by another Rioter that this is sad because this means the incredible skill she has in making her work relatable, poignant, and rendered to break your heart is shunted to the side- and that, beyond anything else, is where her books get their power. However, I think that some of her major works, if rethought appropriately, can get this power back. So today I’m picking out three books that highlight the passion in her work, and focusing on this aspect in the hopes of putting this sometimes intimidating intellect in a new light:
The place I always recommend that people start is Orlando. It is by far the most accessible of her books- this is the one that was written for and metaphorically about her aristocratic writer lover, Vita Sackville-West. Orlando lives across four centuries of English life, dancing through the Renaissance, blossoming through the Age of Reason, wending her way through the Victorian era. I say “her” here, but actually Orlando begins life as a man and changes gender midstream. The book is part biography, part history, and part literary experiment. The book satirizes everything it meets, but does so with such love and understanding that it is easy to understand why Vita’s son called this the “longest and most charming love-letter in literature.” I don’t believe anyone could come away from this book of rich colors, vivid emotions and endless empathy and not see the passion behind the intellect.
Next, go with Mrs. Dalloway. The style here is very different, but no less beautiful. Here, Woolf famously uses stream-of-consciousness, letting us live inside the head of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-middle-class housewife, and Septimus Smith, a war veteran with PTSD, for one day. Which, on the surface, is all that happens. But beneath it? It is the most fascinating, true-to-life depiction of the ebb and flow of our thoughts, about the permanently intertwined nature of event and memory, reflection and action. With this one, I really recommend that you take your time and savor each sentence, allow yourself to be in the visuals and re-read the feelings. Just be present, don’t be swept along as fast as you’re being lead, and you’ll find why Clarissa Dalloway is worth your time.
To the Lighthouse
Now you’re ready for To the Lighthouse. In this novel, we follow years in the life of a family, the Ramsays, at their summer home on the Isle of Skye. Woolf retreats even further inwards, as outward action gives place to meditation and introspection. While at first glance it’s more dense, a poignant story still beats beneath the surface. This book is in part Woolf’s attempt to confront her parents and their relationship, as well as continue her journey of showing the true psychological complexity of thought and perspective. Mrs. Ramsay is not Mrs. Dalloway. She is more, and, in my opinion, far closer to Woolf’s emotional core. Lighthouse is a deep well, but once you slowly bring everything to the surface, it is more powerful than ever. I think, by the time you finish this course of three novels, you will understand why Vita wrote her, on a long trip away that she was “reduced to a thing that wants Virginia.” By this point, I think you will want much more of her too.