Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

In 2010, I began a Virginia Woolf project, reading her fiction in the order it was published alongside her diaries and her short fiction. Between then and last year, I read her Diary Vol. I (1915 – 1919), the sixteen stories written up until 1921, The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Jacob’s Room and her Diary Vol. II (1920 – 1924).

I wrote a few things about my reactions to this body of work, which are perhaps not very interesting but have been interesting for me to look back on after my unexpected break in the project:

And now I am picking up the threads of this reading again. I spent most of last year moving very slowly through the second volume of her diaries, which cover the periods when she is writing Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway. There is a lot of worrying over the reception of her writing; this is always interesting. But also much more confidence in her artistic vision. In both Vol. I and Vol. II she spends a lot of her time talking about the people in her life, her friends and family, as well as domestic concerns – but in Vol. II she expands on her thoughts about writing and literature, and her own fiction as well.

In February 1924, she writes:

I’m working at The Hours, & I think it a very interesting attempt; I may have found my mine this time I think. I may get all my gold out. The great thing is never to feel bored with one’s own writing. That is the signal for a change—never mind what, so long as it brings interest. And my vein of gold lies so deep, in such bent channels. To get it I must forge ahead, stoop & grope. But it is gold of a kind I think.

In terms of catching up, I’ve actually already read Mrs. Dalloway twice, but I think I’ll reread it once more as I get started on Vol. III. And I’m actually behind on the short stories so I got started on those today. I have thirteen to read that were published between 1922 and 1925. The first of these is called “A Woman’s College from Outside” and it is one of those snippets of scene that works as a full story because of the fullness and emotional specificity of Woolf’s prose. It is nothing but a glimpse into a women’s dormitory and a close-up of a single girl. Although at one point she moves wider to touch upon a few other students and gives this wonderful description, which contains a reference point, a kind of clue, for the ending:

Good Bertha, leaning with her head against the chair, sighed profoundly. For she would willingly have slept, but since night is free pasturage, a limitless field, since night is unmoulded richness, one must tunnel into its darkness. One must hang it with jewels. Night was shared in secret, day browsed on by the whole flock.

The story is not much more than a portrait of a very particular emotion – one I would call expectancy, which makes sense for the setting as well. The woman in the story is waiting, observant, awed. It ends like this:

…she lay in this good world, this new world, this world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, and there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming, ‘Oh,’ she cried, as if in pain.

This is something I find again and again in Woolf’s prose, the ability to combine movement with emotion with exterior (most often natural) scenery. She does this so incredibly well. She conjures up so clearly, so concisely, the often unexplainable connections between the world and human sentiment.

Am very much looking forward to getting back into this project.

7 Responses to ““One must hang it with jewels.” Going back to Woolf”

  1. Karen Brown

    What a project! I was a student in a Woolf seminar once with Joanne Trautmann Banks who co-edited Woolf’s letters. We didn’t read everything–but enough to create a very memorable feeling of immersion. I will enjoy your posts as you continue your project!

    • Michelle

      I was just reading something this evening about how reading Woolf often and repeatedly underscores the genius of her work, that starting to know her books by heart actually reveals how very good they are. An interesting idea – there aren’t many books I could say I know by heart, but if I wanted to do this, Woolf would be one of my top choices.

      And I’ve never read any of her letters, but would like to do this once I finish the Diaries and her fiction.

    • Michelle

      Thank you, Stefanie, it feels wonderful to be back reading and thinking about her work again.

  2. Scott W.

    Another late comment (obviously I’m catching up on months of having not read your blog!), but I found this such a nice observation: This is something I find again and again in Woolf’s prose, the ability to combine movement with emotion with exterior (most often natural) scenery. I thought immediately of a memorable scene in The Years in which a character is reading a letter while in a coach driving through London and the attention keeps shifting back and forth between the character’s emotional response to the letter and the scenery passing by outside the coach. It’s always struck me as one of the very best descriptions of the physical phenomenon of reading that I’ve ever encountered, that way in which we can be simultaneously immersed in what we’re reading and aware of what’s going on around us.

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