Returning to Virginia Woolf

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Alexandra Johnson’s books and Virginia Woolf is an author who is central in them or perhaps it is because of Sigrun’s (sub rosa) Virginia Woolf project which I like to follow, whatever it is, Virginia Woolf was often on my mind lately.

I have this odd habit that when I like an author a lot I try to keep at least one of his or her books for later. There are a few authors whose complete works I have read but, due to my reluctance to run out of books to look forward to, they aren’t numerous.

Virginia Woolf is one of those authors where the thought I may finally have read all she has ever written fills me with a certain apprehension. While I’m still keeping Moments of Being for later, I have finally started The Voyage Out, the only novel I hadn’t read yet.

It’s funny to return to her and finalize the reading of her novels with the first book she wrote. It feels as if I had completed a circle. I started reading Virginia Woolf with Mrs Dalloway. I didn’t know that Mrs Dalloway was a returning character. I didn’t even know that Virginia Woolf had any returning characters. But here she is, in The Voyage Out, Mrs Dalloway, in all of her “glory”. Was she always this obnoxious? Frankly, I don’t remember. What I remember of my first Virginia Woolf novel was how much I liked the style.

The Voyage Out is very different from later books but at the same time it contains so many aspects typical for Virginia Woolf”s writing. I know many people read the body of work of an author they cherish chronologically but in her case, reading backwards wasn’t a bad choice. One could too easily overread important aspects of this early novel or, as was done when it was published, dismiss it as being nothing special.

Reading The Voyage Out makes me realize once more what I like the most about her writing. Yes, the style, especially in the later novels, is fantastic, with its flow of interior monologue, the way she uses time and how she describes the passing of time. But there is something else that stayed with me forever since the day I have read Mrs Dalloway. Her writing has an exhilarating quality, an effervescent intensity of feeling that made me think of a German expression which I adore: “Champagner Wetter” or “Champagne weather”. Champagne weather is used to describe a very fresh but sunny spring morning on which the air is still cool, nature has returned to life, the first tentative, tiny leaves appear, the first blossoms can be seen. It’s already a bit warm in the sun but still chilly in the shade. It’s like drinking the first glass out of a freshly opened, nicely cooled Champagne bottle. It bubbles and goes to your head. Virginia Woolf’s novels are full of scenes conveying the mood of champagne weather.  

I will write a “proper” review once I have finished the book but I’m enjoying it too much to wait until then. So far I can see that the story is told chronologically and sequentially, nothing daring really. But there is already a very striking way of writing about people’s interior lives. One of the main themes is the role of women and the way they are treated or rather mistreated by society. Parts of the novel reminded me of E.M. Forster, others of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Rachel, one of the main characters, has a lot in common with Isabel Archer. Still there are scenes which are already typically Woolf. She had a very particular way of showing the passing of time or how the interior worlds of people coexist. There is a wonderful scene towards the middle of the novel in which we see a hotel at night.  First we see it from the outside, all its windows are illuminated, the people are getting ready to go to bed. Later we approach and enter the building, brief glimpses into the various rooms draw pictures of the inhabitants. At the end of the scene, they are lying in their beds, separated only by thin walls, dreaming or just sleeping, drifting off into unknown territory, as if on a big ocean liner. It is a recurring scene really, as the book starts with the voyage on a ship.

It is possible that I will start rereading her books in chronological order when I have finished The Voyage Out and Moments of Being. My favourite of her books are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Flush. I didn’t like The Years or The Waves much and can never even keep them apart. I also didn’t care for Orlando at all. Not sure why, it’s generally a favourite of many people but I remember I found reading it was painfully boring. Jacob’s Room and Between the Acts were two I liked but the memory of them is barely more than a vague impression.

I often hear people say, they are intimidated by Virginia Woolf, just like many are intimidated by Proust or James Joyce. For those who didn’t dare reading her so far, The Voyage Out and Flush are excellent starting points.

Have you read The Voyage Out or any other of Virginia Woolf’s novels? Which is your favourite?