Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘English literature’

If only he would answer a question simply, and not with a superior air as if he had invented the thing he was telling about. She felt she had a right to all the knowledge there was, without fuss…

It took me a few months to get my hands on a copy of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, but I am delighted to finally have it, and have been enjoying, slowly, the first half of the first novel. My Virago Modern Classics edition contains the first three books of her 13-book project: Pointed Roofs, Backwater, and Honeycomb.

Having known absolutely nothing of Richardson before seeing Anthony’s mention of her, it is a treat to discover her writing and her project. To write so directly, so carefully, of a young woman’s consciousness; it was a revolutionary technique when it appeared in 1915. There is no filter – just Miriam and her view of herself vis-à-vis the world as she leaves home and goes to work as a governess at a school in Germany. Richardson was one of—or was—the first to use stream-of-consciousness, and she expresses what I can only call that “thin skin-ness” of someone who is alive to the world, and curious about one’s place within it. There are so many key moments of this: her awareness of her father playacting an English gentleman while on the boat, her fear that she’ll be seen to be a fraud as a governess, that excellent mortifying hair-washing scene in the German school, and one of my absolute favorites, when Miriam is listening to one of the schoolgirls play the piano and remembering a pastoral scene and a mill-wheel from her childhood:

She felt a little tremor in her throat. All at once she knew that if she went on listening to that humming wheel and feeling the freshness of the air, she would cry. She pulled herself together, and for a while saw only a vague radiance in the room and the dim forms grouped about. She could not remember which was which. All seemed good and dear to her.

What Richardson does so well is the interplay between Miriam’s self-awareness and her surroundings – how the people and the furnishings, how everything affects her so keenly. How she guards her outward emotions, as if afraid of them. That’s what I mean by thin skin-ness. When I think of the English writers I associate with this – Kavan, Woolf, Welch – they all came so much later.

I’m going to be a little annoying and mention Ramuz – who was a very close contemporary of Richardson (she was born in 1873, he was born in 1878), and I find he does the same seeing out from under the skin. So does Walser, also a contemporary. I’m not trying to argue the claim that Richardson was the first to employ stream-of-consciousness, I’m just curious how other writers around the same time, but from other literary traditions, were negotiating interiority through stylistic particularities.

And then there is Colette with her Claudine novels – perhaps an even more interesting comparison as she also wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels about a woman making her way into the world. Colette’s Claudine novels feel so much lighter than Richardson, but they were published between 1900 – 1904. By the time Colette is writing in the 1920s and 30s, she’s focused on older women, on sexuality and marriage. If anyone knows of a formal Colette/Richardson comparison, I’d be keen to see it.

One of the elements of Pointed Roofs that I find both startling and marvelous is Miriam’s impatience with organized religion. She sees only artifice, and she hates having to pretend herself that she might enjoy going to church. I am so curious to see how this will develop over the 13 novels. And lastly, the various descriptions of men being impatient with women. There is a marvelous passage in which Miriam criticizes the male German schoolmasters who come to work with the pupils in her school, and how condescending they are, even scornful. And Miriam compares this with the men who taught her in England, with her own father as well, and finds her own schoolteachers were kinder, more interesting, took their pupils more seriously. But this leads her to a wonderful questioning and awareness of herself, and how she had learned and what she cared about:

She could only think that somehow she must be ‘different’; that a sprinkling of the girls collected in that school was different, too. The school she decided was new—modern—Ruskin. Most of the girls perhaps had not been affected by it. But some had. She had. That thought stirred her. She had. It was mysterious.

These first stirrings of her intellectual awakening here are exquisitely drawn, and I can’t wait to read on and see how this aspect of Miriam develops across the thirteen novels.

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.

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On 29 December (1836), Charlotte sent some of her poems to the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. They were accompanied by a letter which has not survived, but the playback in Southey’s famous reply shows that Charlotte had confided to him that she lived in a visionary world, assuming Southey did likewise and would stoop to speak to her ‘from a throne of light & glory’. She also confided an explicit ambition ‘to be forever known’ as a poet.

[…]

It was three months before Southey’s reply came. He was replying to a ‘flighty’ girl in need of a ‘dose of cooling admonition’:

Madam,

… Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity…

This is taken from Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, and it includes Brontë’s reply to Southey, which is superficially apologetic and uses all the right language to placate the receiver, but filled with veiled humor and even a little mocking. Lyndall uses this exchange as just one of her examples of how Brontë maintained two quite distinct personas – the private ambitious and passionate woman vs. the demure, duty-bound public woman. Lyndall demonstrates that these personas were not just “faces” that Brontë switched easily between, but were elements of herself that battled against each other. It was not socially or morally acceptable for Brontë to strive for a literary career or to enjoy the passionate fictional landscape that lived inside of her – and she suffered greatly for this.

I’ll be taking this excellent biography with me on a short trip to the US this week and next.

 

For some unexplainable reason, I had Barbara Pym down as a writer of a different generation altogether. I wasn’t so off as to have catalogued her as an Austen or an Edgeworth, but I did mistakenly think she wrote somewhere around the turn of the century. However, she is much more contemporary. The bulk of her novels were published between 1950 and 1980, although several that were written earlier were published after her death in 1980.

My first experience of Pym’s work comes through her second novel, Excellent Women, published in 1952. Because of this title, I can’t help kicking off my Women Writers Project with this book. Pym uses this label, excellent women, with terrible irony, so I suppose I should be careful how I throw it around, but her ironic use of what should be a compliment reminds me of why I wanted to do this project in the first place. Pym is looking sharply at women’s roles and women’s happiness and so what better book to launch a project whose impetus came out of my frustration that women writers aren’t getting as much air time as their male counterparts.

Excellent Women is not about a woman writer, but it is about how women get noticed and about how women must navigate a male-dominated world. And the heroine of Excellent Women, Mildred Lathbury, is definitely literary. However, despite of (maybe because of!) her knowledge of English poets, she is heading toward confirmed spinsterhood. She lives on her own, spending most of her time in the company of members of her local church, especially Father Malory and his sister. The story begins with new tenants, Mr. and Mrs. Napier, moving into the flat below Mildred’s. The Napiers are a rather bohemian couple, and by that I mean that they seem to be anticipating the impending social and sexual revolution about to sweep the West, while Mildred and many of her friends and acquaintances are comfortable in the quieter times they are about to be forced to leave behind.

Now, just quickly, before I go on, I have to make a tiny complaint about the introduction to my edition of Excellent Women. I have a Folio Society edition, and it is absolutely beautiful, but the introduction actually gives away the entire story. So I knew what was going to happen to Mildred before I even started the book. This was unfortunate, actually, because the question of her future is quite central to story.

Mildred’s future, or more correctly, Mildred’s future happiness, seems to rely on the question of her being married. Isn’t this what she should want? Isn’t this what all women want? Pym frames and re-frames this question of the value of marriage throughout the novel, setting forth both good and bad examples of marriage, and letting Mildred explore her own feelings on the matter. But before this review makes it sound like Excellent Women is a form of 1950s chick lit, let me point out that the tone of Mildred’s constant musing is so wonderfully sharp, so dry and critical (of herself and of others), that the book turns away from its pretend focus on the race for wedded bliss and becomes a keen, sharp-edged analysis of social manners of the period.

The book is amazingly funny and I caught myself laughing out loud on several occasions. Mildred’s explanations for other people’s behaviors are often hilarious. She is critical of others, but also both astonished and admiring. There are moments when a desire to transcend her own fussy, prissy manners takes a hold of her, and she gives the reader a glimpse of a very real fragility, a longing to be someone else, to experience another kind of life. But then she quickly returns to her comfort zone, often with a subtly derisive comment on someone else. This combination of delicate and censorious is especially effective.

I’d like to read more of Pym, and my plan is to try the last of her “comedic” novels, No Fond Return of Love, because I’m curious how her satire evolved throughout the sixties and into the seventies. Did it become even more biting? Following that I’d like to read Quartet in Autumn, as this was the book that brought her back to publishing after a long series of rejections. It was then shortlisted for the Booker. Any other suggestions from the bookish crowd?

 

 

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Usually, when I read an author from start to finish, I try to avoid biography. It isn’t that I believe biography doesn’t or couldn’t inform my study of their work, but I prefer to take the work on its own terms first. I chose not to do this, however, with my Virginia Woolf read, mainly because her journals are so detailed, and really, they are as significant a contribution to her oeuvre as her fiction writing. (I have not taken on her essays or letters… yet. I’m tempted to integrate them now, especially as she consistently references both her reading and her critical writing.)

I’ve just finished Volume One of her diaries, which covers 1915 to 1919. What strikes me first and foremost about her diary writing is how different it is, on the whole, from her fiction. She has a very sharp and perceptive mind, that is evident in both, but she must have worked extremely hard to maintain her particular style in fiction. All writers have a “style,” of course, but Woolf was experimenting and so she breaks with traditional narrative structures and chronologies, even rhythms of language and thought. And then when you read her diary and see how concise it is, how succinct and detail-oriented her personal narration was—and I can only assume that personal narration is a writer’s most natural and instinctive voice—it only serves to highlight the affect of her fiction style.

The other thing I find interesting is that before reading her diaries, I might have been inclined to put her in the mad-genius category. This is a category of artist I am wary of because I do not believe that genius requires madness. To be fair, it is also a stereotype that is often imposed upon an artist by others and while some might enjoy the label there are those who fight it. I admit that I was curious to see how Woolf negotiated this tension, or whether it was even an issue for her in her lifetime. So it is curious to me that there is very little self-reflection upon her depressive tendencies, at least in these early diaries, even after the long depression she suffered between 1915 and 1917, during which she could not write at all. The first few months of entries written after this illness are markedly different from her usual journaling style, but she does not comment on the lapse herself except obliquely, and only on a few rare occasions.

I don’t know how frequently Woolf lost herself completely to depression—perhaps it began to happen more often or maybe she writes more about it as she grew older. I’ll be curious to see how the subject evolves throughout her diaries. I know about, but haven’t yet read her essay “On Being Ill” and I suspect she concentrates her thoughts here (another reason to order her complete essays!)

Going back to where I started, I’m happy to find that reading her diaries doesn’t interfere in any way with the experience of reading her fiction. It is easy to maintain a line between the two forms, and there is just so much to admire in her diaries – character portraits, anecdotes, thoughts on writing, exquisite descriptions of nature.

I do wonder about one thing, however, and maybe some of you know: do Woolf scholars believe that Woolf wrote her diaries knowing they would be public some day? How personal are they?

 

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While on holiday in September, I made some progress on my Virginia Woolf project and finished up Jacob’s Room. This is a title that isn’t spoken of much and although I really enjoyed it, I can easily see why. It isn’t the kind of book that makes anything easy for you—not that ease of reading or ease of understanding is a measure of a book’s worth—but I find it difficult to know exactly how to file this particular novel away onto my mental bookshelf. It fits on the Woolf shelf, but resists most other comparisons or associations.

Jacob’s Room is about Jacob Flanders: his family, his schooling, his friendships and romances, his movement into adulthood. The book moves forward more or less chronologically, but it isn’t at all concerned with fixing the reader into any real time line. We watch Jacob watching the world, and at the same time watch the world watching Jacob. The intensity of the reader’s focus gets caught up in the tension between these two perspectives.

Compared to both The Voyage Out and Night and Day, Woolf pushes her literary experiment much further with Jacob’s Room. Looking at the short stories she published around the same time, it is much of a piece with “The Mark on the Wall,” “Kew Gardens” and my favorite, “The Unwritten Novel”. All very impressionistic with an unspecified narrator shifting in and out within a scene. I quite like it when Woolf puts her energy into representing the movement of the mind and its perceptions instead of focusing on actual story. She does both just fine, but she is so skilled at exploding a character’s thinking into that lovely/strange mixture of feeling and thought.

The book feels light in many ways, on the one hand because Woolf’s writing is so lively and quick but also because it skims through conversations and holidays and dances, all the while hinting at being a coming-of-age novel, but there is too much darkness in Jacob for this passage from young man to adult to work out so easily. Woolf wrote Jacob’s Room during the First World War, although the book is set in pre-war London and Europe. But this impending war hovers over much of the novel, this idea that humanity has taken a wrong turn.

This is a novel to be read several times—I suspect that much would come from a second and third read. There is so much going on in each scene, each jump of thought. Like all of her fiction, when I’ve finished something, I usually want to start right over again at the beginning.

So the project is moving slowly— if I continue reading chronologically, then I need to catch up to 1922 in her diaries (I am currently in April of 1919) and then read the next set of short stories published between 1922 and 1925. And then I’ll happily pick up Mrs. Dalloway for a re-read.

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