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?

66 thoughts on “Returning to Virginia Woolf

  1. I still like Mrs. Dalloway the best of all the stuff of hers I’ve read with To the Lighthouse (and its fast-forwarding of time in that devastating “Time Passes” section) a fairly close second. Hated the ‘whimsical” Orlando and mostly disliked The Waves as well. I find “champagne weather” a perfect description of Woolf’s prose style at its best (“best” meaning the style that speaks most to me), but I think she’s too mannered too often to appeal to me on the same level she does to so many other fans of hers.

    • I’m not sure if you have read The Voyage Out but judging from your comment, I think you would like it. Orlando was the heigth of mannerism for me. I think The Voyage Out may make it on my “favourites list”…
      Glad to see you found a work around to post comments. You are green now…

  2. The only Virginia Woolf that I’ve read was To the Lighthouse, which I enjoyed. She’s one of the authors that I’ve always meant to read more of but just never seem to get to.

    • That happens to me with other authors constantly. I read all of her books in a few weeks, one after the others and only kept The Voyage Out for later. I wasn’t expecting to like it that much.

  3. I ve only read to the lighthouse but recently brought two of her books inspired by sub rosa as well ,I also like to get her diaries at some point there meant to be wonderful insight into her life ,which I find very interesting ,all the best stu

    • I’m glad Sigrun inspired me. You should read Flush. I loved the way she described all the things from the dog’s point of view. How he felt marble on his paws. It’s extremely well written.

  4. “Champagner Wetter” – what a fantastic phrase!
    I’m so excited & happy to see that you are rereading Woolf!
    You might already know that “The Waves” is a favorite of mine. Its dense and complicated, its like walking around on a foggy heath – one is bound to get lost. Still I love it & I think that what I love, is precisely the feeling of getting lost, of having to let go.
    Like you, I don’t really like “Orlando” that much. But I just reread “To the Lighthouse” and “Mrs. Dalloway” and find them both to be better than almost everything else I have ever read …

    • It’s apt, isn’t it? I thought the expression captures the sentiment in The Voyage Out so well. I’m astonished and sad to think that Virginia Woolf had a major berakdown after finishing the novel. She must have felt a lot of joy too but it was evetually crushed. That’s sad.
      I read The Waves and The Years one afte the other that’s why I can’t tell them apart. Foggy sounds good, I guess it is due for a re-read. Maybe it doesn’t have the luminous quality of her first and Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
      I love what Alexandra Johnson writes about her, very eloquent, insightful.

  5. I was utterly obsessed with To the Lighthouse, particularly that middle section, when I was 17 years old and convinced I wouldn’t be around at 18. For that reason and others it’s earned a permanent place among my favorite books. Later, when I was TA in a suburban high school, I’ll never forget an English teacher asking a class to write about a “beautiful moment,” and some bright student asking, “You mean like when Lily Briscoe puts down her brush in ‘To the Lighthouse’?”

    The Voyage Out is the only one of Woolf’s novels I haven’t read, so I suppose I should take this as a prompt to get to it.

    • I read To the Lighthouse for my A-levels and not even that could spoil the reading or the memory of it. But I loved Mrs Dalloway more. I was under the impression that The Voyage Out is a minor novel but – if so, only compared to other Virginia Woolf novels, not compared to other people’s novels. Knowing your taste a bit – I think you might like it.

  6. I have a literary crush on Woolf. My favourite book is To the Lighthouse, which I like because it’s so autobiographical. I love reading her diaries and letters, and have been thinking about a chronological re-read of her novels, except for The Waves. I had to read it as part of the Modernism unit at uni and loathed it with a passion. Subsequent readings have not changed my mind about it. 🙂

    • As I wrote, my memories are blurred and I cannot remember having read them so close together which one I liked better, The Years or The Waves. I think she was one of my first, as you call it, literary crushes. I read a few excellent essays about her – all in German unfortunately – and it was in equal parts sad and inspiring.

  7. Sorry I have to say The Waves is my favourite. I think it was the first Virginia Woolf I read, while still at school, and it was so unlike anything else I’d encountered. To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway would follow closely.

    • There is no need to be sorry, it’s interesting to hear other’s preferences. I could imagine reading this as the first would have an impact. Mine was Mrs Dalloway that’s why I am partial to it.

    • I think it may dethrone Mrs Dalloway, I really love this book. It reminds me of E.M. Forster and Henry James but is still very much Virginia Woolf. You don’t think there is a similarity? Both Forster and James are favourites, I must like it. I have seen Orlando but didn’t like the movie.

  8. Beautifully written. To me, Mrs. Dalloway will always be associated with autumn. The novel with its middle-aged characters ruminating upon youthful promises not really fulfilled has a melancholy tone that I find truly captivating.

    Haven’t read her other novels though I’ll be reading Orlando for one of the challenges this year.

    • Thanks, neer. I hadn’t thouht of calling Mrs Dalloway an autumn novel but compeared to this one which is full of spring energy – it’s very apt. I cannot rememeber her so well. In this book she is an obnoxious character.
      I hope you get along better with Orlando than I did. It just didn’t work for me at all but I know many people love it. I hope you will review it.

  9. Novels, novels, novels. Not to knock Mrs. Dalloway, but I am at least tempted to say my favorite book of Woolf’s is The Second Common Reader. She makes a fine model for bloggers. Did you see Rohan Maitzen’s recent essay on Woolf’s criticism?

  10. Oh, here’s to you Mrs. Dalloway, bloggers love you more than you will know…

    Good book that – I even wrote a stream-of-consciousness review of it once 😉

    And I’d really love to get this one too – when I have a spare day or two 😦

    • That’s a good one, there really should be a song. 🙂
      Yes, time always and issue, my main reason to avoid long books. I’ve decided to no longer avoid chunky books I want to read and simply write more often about them.
      I’m going to check out your post.

  11. Another impressive review…and over a book you havent finished yet! I can see how much you like it. The last time I was as passionate as you are was when reading Battle Royale.

    It seems from the comments, a lot have read her books…but me 😉
    It is always fun to read a passionate review or pre-review.

    • Thanks, Novia, I love this book. It’s wonderful. I don’t want to put it aside and at the same time I don’t want it to end. You know how that is. I think you would like Flush. It’s the story told from the perspective of a dog, how he feels the world, sees, smells. It makes you realize so much more about the sense and gives you a feeling how it must be to live as an animal.

      • In other word, it sounds like my turtle’s blog.
        I do want to read that, maybe I can request it for a bookstore, I am also going to order Broken from that store. I wish finding books is an easy thing here 😦

    • Thanks, Amritoroupa. Yes, it’s tempting to read Mrs dalloway again, isn’t it?
      I hope you will gget to read The Voyage Out, it’s a wonderful novel, you might like it.

  12. I didn’t know Mrs. Dalloway appeared in other works. That is good to know. I loved, loved, loved the novel Mrs. Dalloway. I’m starting to feel this way about Dickens. I am enjoying his novels and as much as I want to read them all, I will be sad once I have completed all of his works.

    • I understand that very well although I haven’t contracted the Dickens virus yet. 🙂
      I was very surprised to see her appear in this novel. She is in some of the shorter fiction but I didn’t know that she was on Vriginia Woolf’s mind as early as this. I think you would like this novel.
      Tom (Amateur Reader) has finished reading all of Dickens novels recently and posted about it. You need to visit his blog.

      • Cool. I’ll have to follow Tom! And I will look for the novel…hopefully my library will have it. But my library keeps shocking me about what they actually have. It is cheaper to find used copies.

  13. You make me want to reread Mrs. Dalloway too, Caroline. I had no idea the characters were recurring. Will have to make time to read more of her books.
    Your description of champagne weather is brilliant.

    • Thanks, Carole. Mrs Dalloway is one of those books about which most people seem to agree. The day I’ll do a similar post on Balzac, I’m sure the answers about the favourite or best of his books will vary a lot.
      I didn’t know about Mrs Dalloway being so frequently used. There are some authors where it really makes sense to read all f their books, not only because we like them but because there is an evolution of ideas, themes, recurring characters.

    • I don’think I’ve read all of her essays, just some here and there but never a collection. I need to do that. I think you can’t got wrong with Mrs Dalloway. It’s a wonderful novel.

  14. Wonderful post, Caroline! Your enthusiasm for Virginia Woolf is infectious 🙂 I have never read Virginia Woolf before this year and so I am hoping to read a few of her books this year. The ones I have in mind are ‘Mrs.Dalloway’, ‘Orlando’, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and a collection of her essays that I have. I read two of her essays recently called ‘Mr.Bennett and Mrs.Brown’ and ‘How to read a book’ and loved them. I was expecting to disagree with Woolf on the essay on Mr.Bennett, but I ended up agreeing with her 🙂 Can’t wait to read more. I am sorry to know that you didn’t like ‘Orlando’ that much. The reason I want to read ‘Orlando’ is because it seems to ask some interesting questions on gender and I remember Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ being similar to it in some ways. I want to find out whether Le Guin was inspired by ‘Orlando’. After reading your thoughts on them, I will now add ‘The Voyage Out’ and ‘Flush’ to that list. I didn’t know that you were such a big fan of Virginia Woolf 🙂 Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for her works and for this lovely post.

    • Forgot to mention one more thing. I loved the word ‘champagne weather’ and your description of it! It is a beautiful addition to my vocabulary today 🙂

    • Thanks Vishy, I’m glad you liked it. Well – Orlando – in theory it’s a great book, the questions it asks are interesting but I don’t seem to be the only one who didn’t get along with it. It could be that the idea went into Le Guin’s novel (one I want to read this year btw) but the writing is certainly different. Noting of what I like in Woolf’s writng was in Orlando, or at least I didn’t see it. I found it boring and annoying but I really hope you will like it. Those who do are generally very fond of it. I remeber thinkg at the time that it had all the ingredients to make a great novel. I’m not sure I have read those essays you mention but I will try and find them.
      I will start to read those “keep them for later” books of my favourite authors. There will be more suprises. 🙂

      • I am looking forward to reading ‘Orlando’ and discussing it with you. Hope you enjoy reading ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. Those two essays of Virginia Woolf were excellent. I was especially interested in ‘Mr.Bennett and Mrs.Brown’ because I read another essay about this essay. Arnold Bennett was one of the famous novelists of the early part of the 20th century and I loved his books which I have read. This article I read was about why Bennett is not read much today and how Virginia Woolf’s essay spelt ‘doom’ for his work. I was wondering why Woolf wrote such an essay disparaging Bennett’s work. But when I read Woolf’s essay, it was not like that at all – it was beautiful and I agreed with what she said. It is unfortunate that in literary debates, sometimes writers and critics quote other writers out of context to make a point. In this case, I felt that Virginia Woolf was wronged against.

        • How very interesting.Yes, quoting out of context can be very bad for all the parties invloved. It’s often done, as you say, to make a point.
          I have never read Bennett. I hope I can find the essay, it sounds interesting.
          I’m looking forward to The Left Hand of Darkness. I know many people love it, I only hope it won’t be a disappointment.
          I’m very interested to see what you will think of Orlando. Did you watch the movie?

          • I think Bennett is more known today for his book ‘The Old Wives Tale’ but my favourite book of his is ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’. I read it at a really impressionable age and I loved it. It is, what we might call, a fast-paced adventure yarn, an early 20th century version of today’s thriller. I had a yearning a few years back to read it again but I discovered that it was out-of-print. But I didn’t give up and searched around and finally discovered a publisher who prints out-of-print books on demand and got it from there. I loved reading it the second time too – it was like meeting an old, favourite friend after many years – I was very happy because of that.

            Hope you get to read that essay by Woolf. Hope you enjoy ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’.

            I didn’t know that ‘Orlando’ was made into a movie. I will look for it. Thanks for telling me about it.

            • I think now that you mentioned Bennett’s book before on one of my hotel posts since books set in hotels are favourites.
              It’s great when a book is still good the second time. I’m always afraid it wouldn’t be that’s why I don’t re-read much. It’s nice to think of a books as an old friend.
              I’m not sure about the movie anymore, I saw it but can’t remember whether I liked it. It’s mixed up with the memory of the book.
              I hope you will like it.

        • I’m planning on doing a few posts on favourite writers and return to their work, maybe re-read a few books and finally read those books I kept “for later”. Do you never do that at all?

          • I can’t wait to read your ‘favourite writers’ posts 🙂 I sometimes re-read my favourite books. Many times I don’t read the whole book, but read parts of it. One book that I did re-read recently was Anne Fadiman’s essay collection ‘Ex Libris’. It was as wonderful the second time as the first time. She is such an adorable essayist. Have you read this book?

            • Thanks for mentioning her. I’ve never heard of her. I do re-read favourite short stories and essays but hardly any novels. When I think of favourite books I tend to forget how many non-fiction books I read which I really loved.
              I have to look up Anne Fadiman.

  15. Pingback: The Voyage Out | sub rosa

  16. I read The Voyage Out (intriguing title, no?) about a year ago after, frankly, having had trouble previously with Woolf — apart from A Room of One’s Own, which I consider to be one of the greatest essays ever written. Jacob’s Room, e.g., seems to me very uneven, even poorly focused. Like many, I have been intimidated by her later novels, but I reacted to The Voyage Out much as you did. It has qualities of great writing, but it’s never not a good read as well. And the long dying of that young woman is heart-wrenching without lacking absolute reality, so much so that I had to put the book down and could only finish it — knowing by then she would die — by summoning up my last bit of courage.

    • I knew before I started to read that she is going to die and I’m sort of glad I did. The book is so beautiful if I hadn’t had the tiniest warning it would have been very disturbing, I think. There is a lot of foreshadowing but I’m not sure I would have noticed if I hadn’t known.
      I agree, it has great writing but is so very readable as well.
      I liked Jacob’s Room but some of the others were not to my liking at all.
      I could imagine you would like Mrs Dalloway. Even To the Lighthouse. A lot of what is wonderful in The Voyage Out is in that book as well.
      A Room of One’s Own was one of the most importnat books for me. I read it as a teenager and everything I already gelt but couldn’t put into words was in it.
      The title The Voyage Out is intriguing, at times it seems so much more a voyage into something, Rachel’s soul for example.

  17. I’ve read a few of Woolf’s novels and a smattering of her essays, which I great enjoy. I did read this and enjoyed it but it has been several years ago now. It’s been too long I think, and I’ve not read enough of her work to choose a favorite. I’ve read Mrs Dalloway twice and To the Lighthouse, but it was the first and I think I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have. She seems like an author who it is best to read and reread. I’d like to read Jacob’s Room next (at some point that is) since it is about WWI (If I am remembering correctly?). I like it when you get so excited about a book that you have to write about it even before you finish–I do that all the time as well. Have you read, or do you plan on reading her diaries, too?

    • It doesn’t happen all that often that I have the urge to start writing before I finish. I don’t want to write such long posts anymore, and with books like this there is always so much you want to share in the end, better to write more than one post, I think.
      I was surprised to find out when i read TBM’s recent review that Mrs Dalloway is about WWI. I had forgotten. I’m not sure about Jacob’s Room.
      I realized as well that there is still one left that I have not read Night and Day. Nobody mentions it.
      I’d like to read the diaries. The bits that Alexandra Johnson inludes are so well written.
      She is someone to re-read, I agree.

  18. Pingback: Best Books 2012 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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