MrsDalloway_Manuscript.JPG

Woolf is an author I return to periodically because I know there’s always more to discover in her intricately layered writing. Rereading “Orlando” last year was such a joy and since “The Waves” is my favourite novel I’ll reread sections of it frequently. But I also recently received this stunning new manuscript version of “Mrs Dalloway” that’s been published by SP Books and it’s been absolutely fascinating reading through it. This is the first time Woolf’s hand-written manuscript of this novel has been reproduced and it’s incredible seeing her scrawls on the page, notes in the margins and lines she’s crossed out. It gives a captivating insight into her process of composing this pivotal novel.

I’ve been discovering some interesting ways that this first version of the book differs significantly from the final book as well. Firstly, it was originally titled “The Hours” in honour of the structure she created of following her characters throughout a single day. Certainly the original opening is more overtly ponderous about the process of time as well and so radically different from the succinct opening of the published version of “Mrs Dalloway” which is surely one of the most famous opening lines in history. Secondly, it was originally going to focus on the character of Peter Walsh (the man who proposed to Clarissa when they were younger but she rejected him.) Clarissa was going to be more of a peripheral character as in the fiction she appeared in previously including Woolf’s first novel “The Voyage Out” and some short stories. But at some point in the process Clarissa took centre stage and the novel became titled with her married name. It’s also thrilling to see a note she writes at the beginning of one section that says “a delicious idea came to me that I will write anything I want to write.” I can’t help wondering what mental process she went through to come to this liberating conclusion!

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It’s also quite touching seeing how laboriously Woolf crafted the novel. This should have already been obvious, but Woolf’s writing has such an assured intelligent quality to it that it’s easy to assume it simply flowed out of her purple-inked pen. This edition includes two introductions which provide some interesting context to the book’s creation. One is by Michael Cunningham who nicked Woolf’s original title for his own brilliant novel “The Hours”. The second is by Virginia Woolf-specialist Helen Wussow who lays out the manner in which Woolf wrote and the compelling history of the actual manuscripts after Woolf’s death. It was also interesting to learn how multiple final versions of “Mrs Dalloway” exist since she’d correct different proofs for different people – with alterations changing from manuscript to manuscript.

For a huge fan of Woolf’s writing like me, this book is such a treasure and one I’ll continue to enjoy reading through for many years to come. I also created a video showing off this beautiful book as well as giving my own little tribute to “Mrs Dalloway” by exploring her London: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8sZGAHVVCw

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
All the Lives We Ever Lived by Katharine Smyth.JPG

Any author who describes her passionate engagement with Virginia Woolf’s writing will instantly grab my attention. So when I saw how Katharine Smyth’s memoir “All the Lives We Ever Lived” is about her process of finding solace in reading Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse” amidst the prolonged illness and death of her father I was drawn to it. My experience was further enhanced by reading this book along with fellow YouTubers Britta Bohler and Kendra Winchester. We left each other wonderfully long geeky messages about our reactions to the book and general thoughts about Virginia Woolf’s life and work. I think this is what makes this book something more than a traditional memoir – it’s a communion for anyone who has been deeply affected by Woolf’s writing. Smyth mimics the structure of “To the Lighthouse” to tell her own experiences before, during and after her father’s illness to mirror the three sections of Woolf’s novel. But she also interjects how her experiences and emotions are informed by her reading as well as meditating on the life of Woolf herself. In this way the author creatively approaches the experience of grief and mourning, the complexity of how we feel about our families and how our relationship with art and literature is often deeply personal.

Smyth powerfully captures that revelatory sensation we can sometimes get as readers where we feel so connected to the text of a book. After quoting a section from “To the Lighthouse” she describes how “I was drawn to that darkness and depth; it actually hurt to read a sentence like the one above; it was so apt, it was so beautiful; I longed for Woolf’s genius, yes, but I also longed for Mrs. Ramsay herself, for her as my mother, for her as my friend; I wanted to be her – that’s how painful I found the distance between us, the distance between me and that text. I might have swallowed the page.” This total immersion in a book is the kind of spellbinding experience which makes reading so important and unique. Smyth chronicles how certain sections of Woolf’s novel spoke to her at different times and how her feelings about the characters change over time. She shows how the experience of reading and rereading yields ever-shifting meanings as we navigate different challenges throughout our lives.

“To the Lighthouse” is a fictional memorial to Woolf’s mother where she sought to capture something of her essence in the character of Mrs Ramsay. Smyth is doing the same with her father but, rather than just neatly draw parallels between him and Mrs Ramsay, Smyth freely makes connections with other figures as well. For instance, she considers how Mr Ramsay strives for intellectual achievement and doesn’t achieve as much as he hoped for. Similarly her father encounters different personal and professional set-backs and disappointments. But Smyth freely admits that her quest to connect life and text doesn’t always work so neatly: “Such is the nature of Woolfian failure, which, despite my urge to conflate them, turns out to be a different breed from my father’s own.” In many ways her experiences and the events in Woolf’s novel are very different. But her process doesn’t feel forced; it’s more of a meandering journey through this significant time in her life while reflecting on how the universal meaning found in “To the Lighthouse” speaks to her experience.

One of the most moving and melancholy sections of the book is the last where she describes her experiences in the aftermath of her father’s death. Here she’s confronted with an absence in the same way the characters in “To the Lighthouse” live with a palpable loss in the final section. It’s an all-consuming sensation of grief and Smyth feels that Woolf’s novel wholly captures the reality of this experience. She poignantly describes the knowledge she gleaned from the book and how “To grieve is to be floored, again and again, by a series of epiphanies that, put to paper, sound painfully banal. To grieve is likewise to be plagued by questions that can only gesture towards the clarity we seek and occasionally find – these are the shorthand by which we must stumble through an experience too vast and too disorientating to express in its totality.” Woolf’s writing frequently gestures at thoughts and feelings which can’t be contained in language and Smyth equally finds that her experience can’t be summarised. Rather, she points to the way time moves onward. Lives end, homes are transformed or destroyed and memories are lost.

Godrevy Lighthouse - Woolf’s inspiration for the lighthouse in her novel

Godrevy Lighthouse - Woolf’s inspiration for the lighthouse in her novel

I’ve always felt one of the most difficult dimensions of grief is how it can valorise those who have been lost over those who are still living. Death can highlight the cruel reality of how we value certain people in our lives over others. Some people in mourning might even wish that other family members had died rather than the person that’s been lost. This dark reality is described in “To the Lighthouse” where some of the Ramsay children resent Mr Ramsay’s presence when Mrs Ramsay’s absence is so painfully felt. It’s striking how Smyth admits how she valued the love of her father over her mother because “how uneventful it is to be loved by her, a person whose very existence was so dependable that I rarely, if ever, considered it.” So it’s moving how she finds one of the most revelatory experiences of losing her father is the appreciation and connection she makes with her mother “it wasn’t until well after his death that I finally took the time to ask for her memories, to listen to her own account of grief. She surprised me”.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Smyth’s style of writing at times mimics Woolf’s own – especially when describing certain places or the presence of light. But I don’t think this is intended as imitation. It’s more a gesture at how Woolf’s sensibility has permeated the way she actually senses and interprets the world around her. It signals the way Woolf’s writing has enveloped her life as a way of understanding daily existence in the wake of this significant loss. Moreover, this reinforces how the experience of reading this memoir is akin to enjoying a conversation with a fellow Woolf lover. But, for this reason, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t read Woolf before. I don’t know how meaningful Smyth’s analysis and connection to Woolf’s text would be for anyone who hasn’t read “To the Lighthouse” – although, I’d be fascinated to hear what anyone who has read this memoir but never read Woolf thinks about “All the Lives We Ever Lived”. Regardless, I found this book very moving and it’s made me want to go back to reading Woolf – yet again!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKatharine Smyth
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Books are an important physical presence around anyone who feels reading is a major part of living. I can spend a lot of time just gazing at my shelves wondering what I should read or reread next or simply enjoying the company of my books. Of course, no book was created in isolation but produced by someone who was influenced by reading countless other books. The traditional hub for many great writers to discover books that inspire and inform them has been the library. This year The London Library which is the world's largest independent library with more than a million books and periodicals in its collection is turning 175 years old. “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” is a compact collection of pieces by great writers such as Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, EM Foster and the poet Leigh Hunt – all of whom were active members of The London Library. They contemplate the experience of being committed writers and readers who share the same wonder, joy and excitement we all feel when staring at a shelf filled with books.  

It's surprising how relevant some of the arguments and questions raised in these pieces still feel today. I suppose this is because the experience of being an enthusiastic reader never changes. George Eliot muses upon the profession of writing in her essay 'Authorship' and how writing for a living can cause someone to compromise their vision and morals due to commercial pressure. She considers the cultural impact of great writing against the degree to which its valued by society. These feel like the same arguments that are made in current articles on how authors are woefully underpaid. Virginia Woolf addresses the issue of criticism and urges readers to come to books with no preconceived notions or expectations about the text: “Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” In her typically ingenious way she meditates upon the interplay between the physical world around us, the imaginative world the author places us in and how these intermingle.

Charles Dickens' letter to George Eliot is filled with praise for her first publication “Scenes of Clerical Life” yet he shows himself to be incredibly astute guessing in a friendly manner that she is not male as her pen names suggests but female (something which was not publicly known at the time). Leigh Hunt contemplates his passion for the books around him, the manner in which books are consumed and how they are a touchstone to the past. He shows a certain snobbishness about different kinds of literature and how access to books is connected with privilege (this was certainly true when he was alive in the mid-1800s.) In a way all book lovers can relate to, he goes through some of his prize possessions on his bookshelves developing a fetishism for the beauty of certain books. He also covets the books other readers' possess remarking: “I cannot see a work that interests me on another person's shelf, without a wish to carry it off.”

EM Forster wrote his piece about The London Library itself at a time directly before WWII when he was aware of how precarious books and the inheritance of knowledge was in the face of rampant destruction. In this bleak time he ardently remarked about the library that “It is a symbol of civilization. It is a reminder of sanity and a promise of sanity to come.” It's comforting to know that The London Library is still thriving. This week from May 5th-8th to celebrate their 175 year a number of readings and events called Words in the Square are taking place.

This book is a fantastic touchstone for readers and lovers of literary culture exploring from different angles the way literature plays an active part of daily life. It makes a wonderful companion to Ali Smith's recent book of stories and collection of testaments about the importance of libraries Public Library. In the preface to each piece in “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” there is a short fascinating paragraph about each author's relationship with The London Library – for instance, when Virginia Woolf joined she gave her occupation as “Spinster”. These pieces reinforce how important the library was for these writers and this anthology is a wonderful celebration of our literary culture.

Home of Leonard and Viriginia Woolf

Home of Leonard and Viriginia Woolf

My boyfriend surprised me last Friday evening with a weekend away as a birthday present. I was told to meet him at Charing Cross station and we’d go from there. We got on a train and it was quite dark by the time we arrived in Burwash, Sussex where we stayed at Pelham Hall, a beautiful modern B&B. It’s a 14th century house that’s been lovingly decorated by its friendly proprietors. It’s a strange feeling arriving somewhere in the dark because it was only in the morning I saw what a sprawling picturesque countryside surrounded the place. Living in overpopulated London it’s easy to forget sometimes that a short train ride away there are such rural places. A short walk away from Pelham Hall over a field is Bateman’s which was Rudyard Kipling’s Jacobean home. We hiked by to see this impressive property from the exterior, but of course I was much more interested in visiting the nearby properties inhabited by the Bloomsbury group.

Virginia's desk

Virginia's desk

The first place we visited on Saturday morning was Monk’s House, Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s long-time rural residence in the tiny village of Rodmell. Visitors are only able to walk through the ground floor rooms of this 17th century cottage including the study with Leonard’s odd collection of shells and Virginia’s favourite reading chair, a dining room, a staircase with a pile of books on every stair (apparently upon Leonard’s death there were over 6000 books in the house) and a kitchen partially screened off with a portrait of the Woolf’s cook. There is also a greenhouse at the entrance of the house which has hanging grape vines. We were able to purchase some of these grapes from the shop which only asked for a donation. At the back of the house is Virginia’s bedroom housing artwork by Vanessa Bell and a bed which has a view of the garden. The garden itself is quite large and impressive with many flowers, fruit trees and vegetables growing, a pond and a scattering of statues. One section of the garden has busts of Leonard and Virginia next to which is the tree under which her ashes were scattered. At the end of the garden is a small structure with photographs of the Woolfs and the many guests they entertained at the cottage which they inhabited from 1919 until Leonard’s death in 1969.

Virginia's bookshelf - many are Shakespeare

Virginia's bookshelf - many are Shakespeare

Guide reading from Mrs Dalloway

Guide reading from Mrs Dalloway

Pears and the door to Virginia's bedroom

Pears and the door to Virginia's bedroom

Fireplace in bedroom painted by Vanessa Bell

Fireplace in bedroom painted by Vanessa Bell

What really brought the house alive were the many guides sat throughout the property who were brimming with enthusiasm to talk about the history of the estate and stories about the Woolfs. At one point, a volunteer gave an animated reading from Mrs Dalloway in the garden. It was amazing to learn that almost all of the furniture and decorations in the house are the originals including some famous portraits of Virginia and a shelf of Virginia’s books. What a fantastic experience to come in such close contact with the place where she spent so much time when “The Waves” is a novel which has meant so much to me throughout my life.

Tree under which Virginia's ashes were scattered

Tree under which Virginia's ashes were scattered

Pond next to Charleston House with reclining statue

Pond next to Charleston House with reclining statue

Next we drove to nearby Charleston House which was the long-time residence of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. This was a much larger establishment and it was thrilling to take the tour through the farmhouse as nearly every room is painted in Grant and Bell’s distinctive styles. The wallpaper, bookcases and furniture are covered in their own colourful designs. Of course, paintings fill nearly every wall ranging from the works of famous artists to local friends. Even the lampshades in some of the lower rooms were decorated with Vanessa’s son’s distinctive colander shades which scatter drops of the fading daylight across the ceiling. It’s easy to imagine how such a large, lively residence could be the central point for gatherings of artists. Although I’m familiar with the broad facts about Virginia’s life, I knew comparatively little about the complex relationships between Duncan and Vanessa and the many other members of the Bloomsbury group. What a complicated state of affairs! I didn’t watch the recent drama series ‘Life in Squares’ about the group, but that evening we downloaded and watched the first episode. It’s a rather silly dramatization, but good indulgent fun.

Before heading out to a pub for dinner we made a final stop at the nearby Berwick Church which contains many murals painted by Duncan and Vanessa. It was interesting to see the style of paintings – so much more realistic than many religious scenes with soldiers and likenesses of members of their immediate family included.

Murals by Duncan Grant

Murals by Duncan Grant

Berwick Church

Berwick Church

Mural by Vanessa Bell

Mural by Vanessa Bell

Old video where I explain how much I love Virginia Woolf's The Waves

I had the most fantastic weekend and it’s given me a renewed love for Virginia Woolf’s work. I hope to go back and read the Persephone Books edition of her Diaries later this year after I finish reading all the submissions for the Green Carnation Prize. I feel really lucky and grateful to have had this experience. It was an especially thoughtful present.

Have you ever visited Monk’s House or another residence of one of your favourite writers? Did it change how you read them?

Bateman's (Kipling's Home)

Bateman's (Kipling's Home)

Butterflies on Monk's House stairwell

Butterflies on Monk's House stairwell

Inspiration for Woolf's fiction Flush

Inspiration for Woolf's fiction Flush

Forster & TS Eliot at Monk's House

Forster & TS Eliot at Monk's House

Holding The Waves and grapes from the Woolf's garden - they tasted sweet!

Holding The Waves and grapes from the Woolf's garden - they tasted sweet!

Looking in the window of the Monk's house sitting room

Looking in the window of the Monk's house sitting room

It's a bold challenge to translate the life and writings of Virginia Woolf into dance. When I was at university I took a course which investigated how prose could be translated into drama. I wanted to take on the challenge of trying to make my favourite novel “The Waves” into a play, but it seemed impossible. Any attempt to convey the vibrancy of Woolf's writing in a physical form felt flat. I was proven wrong several years later when The National Theatre and Katie Mitchell successfully adapted “The Waves” into a play which effectively expressed the progression of life and subconscious speech in this novel through a clever use of sets, staging and mixed media. Wayne McGregor and The Royal Ballet have created an even bigger project which conveys the feeling of Woolf's life and writing through ballet. It's a heartfelt, dramatic and stunningly beautiful production.

The ballet is split into three parts. Each is inspired by a particular text: “Mrs Dalloway,” “Orlando,” and “The Waves” respectively. These three acts all have extremely different tones in their style of dance, lighting and music. But each is suffused with a sensation of Woolf's grappling to find an adequate form of expression for the world around her. The first act 'I Now, I Then' begins with a recording of Woolf's voice speaking about the nature of language, how it is under a continuous process of reinvention and only comes to have meaning when reformed. Through the dancers' movement and use of shape this sense of process comes through. The sounds and projections of photos of London give an atmosphere of Woolf’s life. There is a scene of men at the warfront, but I had the sense that these men were projections of the public’s consciousness at the time with thoughts of war consuming everyone’s thoughts. Throughout much of this and other scenes we see dancer Alessandra Ferri as a kind of Woolf figure wandering through scenes observing and interacting. There is a sense she is a part of this world, but at a remove struggling to find her place within it and find a way to appropriately represent it.

The second part ‘Becomings’ begins with a feeling of formality with dancers attired in rich gold metallic Elizabethan dress. Just as the novel “Orlando” leaps through time and gender so do the dancers change moving through segments of the stage created with lasers and the sexes become mixed as performers wear genderless flesh-coloured clothing. This section of the production has a much more celebratory feel as the performers feel liberated from the constrictions of place, time, gender. Smoke swirling in the laser beams creates an eerie mirror-effect with the dancer’s movements. It’s as if both the molecular nature of life is being portrayed alongside a grand view of civilization as a whole.

The final part ‘Tuesday’ begins with Gillian Anderson reading the suicide letter Woolf wrote to Leonard. Looming in the background is a large slow-motion video of waves curling and crashing into themselves. Six young dancers emerge mimicking the six characters in “The Waves” who start as children. Gradually, these six are replaced by older dancers and then six more. They fall into pairs or groups as do the voices in the novel sometimes favouring particular individuals and other times coming together as a whole. There is a feeling of these individuals being tossed and turned through life moving through states of joy and sorrow. Most striking are scenes when the dancers come together to hold a pose and it seems like an ardent wish to capture a perfectly articulated expression or moment of being. A melancholy music pervades this part as the dancing figure of Woolf is eventually portrayed as drowning or sinking. The dancers become like characters hovering in the author’s consciousness as they bob up and down in the background shadows.

While watching this production I had to frequently remind myself not to strictly interpret what I was seeing as a narrative, but rather take it in as an expression of feelings inspired by the texts. I don’t often see dance and have only gone to the ballet a few times in my life, but of course I was drawn to seeing this production because of how passionate I feel about Woolf’s writing. As can be seen from the excellent exhibition on Woolf's life at the National Portrait Gallery last summer, the public is also fascinated by the woman herself and this production shows the same preoccupation with Woolf's life. Once I let go of my impulse to “read” what I was seeing and experience the effect of the overall performance I was tremendously moved by it. A lot of care and passion has gone into this production to honour Woolf’s vision. It was a dazzling experience that will stay with me.

The production is played at the Royal Opera House until May 26th 2015. It's being given its first revival from Jan 21-Feb 14th 2017: http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/woolf-works-by-wayne-mcgregor

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It’s not often that I read books a second time for the plain fact that there are so many new ones I want to get to. Sometimes I will recall a particular scene that I found powerful in a book which I’ll flip back to or I might read a particular favourite short story from a collection I read ages ago. But, in general, I’m too greedy to turn back to something I’ve already experienced even though I know I’ll find new meanings when reading a good book again. However, there are some titles I’ve revisited multiple times. In their own ways I find them endlessly rewarding as I get something new from them each time.

 

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

This is by far the book I’ve read the most times in my life. The entire movement of life from childhood to old age perfectly encapsulated in six distinct “voices” speaking out of some subterranean region of consciousness. As I grow older I connect in different ways with the characters at different ages. There is stunning poetry in the prose so it can be enjoyed for its sheet beauty. Or you can reread passages for their depth of thought. It’s the most artful novel I’ve ever read.

 

The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982

More than any other book here, I can flip to any entry in these journals to become immediately immersed in reading about Oates’ thoughts on literature or her philosophical meditations on the state of being. Unlike her beautifully crafted fiction, the thoughts in this book come so directly that their honesty speaks directly to me. Whether luxuriating in her touching descriptions of the natural world or enjoying her thoughts on what she’s reading or other authors she encounters, these journals are a joy to read. Since this only covers a ten year period of her life, I can only hope that Oates and her biographer Greg Johnson will one day return to this project to publish more of her journals.

 

In America by Susan Sontag

When Sontag finished the prologue of this novel she felt she’d created the perfect post-modern story. So she has. It’s a brilliant way to enter into the story of her Polish actress Maryna who travels to America in order to found a utopian community. Something about this novel chimes with me so that I find her search for authenticity and her failure to find it so touching and personal. Sontag was such a precise and rigorous intellectual and I’m endlessly entranced by the portrait she created in this novel.

 

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Much like my thoughts about Rachel Joyce’s novels recently, this book touches upon the dilemma of imagining parallel lives for yourself. In this instance, without even knowing why exactly, a woman named Delia walks out on her family to start from scratch and test out a new one. How many of us haven’t dreamed of doing this? Delia’s radical claim on a meditative space where she can discover what’s most important to her in life turns into a zone where I can meditate on my own life choices and what I really value (without the danger of abandoning everything and everyone around me completely.)

 

SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris

This is pure pleasure and something of a Christmas tradition in my relationship. We make ourselves cups of hot chocolate, lie on blankets in front of the fire with the Christmas tree in the background and read these hilarious stories aloud to each other. Sedaris’ humour is so well paced and tinged with a slant of darkness that makes these stories endlessly surprising.