Learning to read Virginia Woolf

Penguin Modern Classics, 1964, reprinted 1968

Penguin Modern Classics, 1964, reprinted 1968

In my copy of The Waves I find that I have written the  date: 11/6/69, and my name as it was once, in the handwriting I used then – halfway between a schoolgirl’s and the self-conscious italic I was just adopting.

2014-10-26 21.11.21

I have no memory of buying it or reading it, but it has been read.  There are timid pencil marks in the margins.

 

What I do remember is that I didn’t like Woolf.  That was my third year at University and I had just turned twenty.  I had also not long decided – passionately and abruptly – that I couldn’t bear another moment within the Japanese department, and so the authorities had kindly cobbled together a degree I stood some vague chance of completing.  It involved English Literature instead of Japanese Language, and a rushed purchase of the pile of books we were to read.  Yeats and Eliot, Bleak House I think, something by D H Lawrence.  Some plays.

I knew I hated Virginia Woolf.  Maybe I had read Mrs Dalloway in the first year, but what could a naive and desperate teenager possibly make of Clarissa Dalloway or her world?  Let alone the filigree qualities of Woolf’s slow and delicate exposition.  I thought her wordy and woolly, meandering, and poetic in a vague way that irritated me profoundly.  That judgment lasted me quite well all through the seventies and into much of the eighties.

No – the love of my reading life was Lawrence: passionate and direct, he knew what he believed and was utterly uninhibited about how he expressed those beliefs.

D H Lawrence

D H Lawrence

He wasn’t just my hero, he was a prose style icon for all that little coterie of closeted gay friends who were clearly going to get starry firsts and go on to glitter in academia.  Lawrence: the master of rhetoric and of the image that argued, clarified and told all.  He seemed to me then a writer who didn’t tiptoe around or mince his words.  He was the broad sun of wide judgments, in comparison with Woolf’s misty, uncommitted particularity.  He could blunder and burn; his prose had sharp edges – but it felt clear and exciting.

This, at least, was the substance of my conversation with Debbie one spring day in the  mid-eighties in Leamington, in the staffroom of The Trinity School: a progressive comprehensive secondary school (a rare beast then and always) with a genuinely dedicated, egalitarian, and overwhelmingly kind staff.  She was astonished that I could possibly prefer that old rogue woman-hater to the stylish, subtle Virginia Woolf, and I had to listen to her.  Lawrence was a misogynist and his writing was rushed and sloppy.  She had thought better of me: I felt her silent disappointment.

I have known several wonderful Debbies and Deborahs in my life, but the name itself  has always baffled me.  Debbie seemed a vulgar sort of name, as in Debbie Reynolds.

Tammy

My mother raised us to eschew vulgarity in all its forms, with a passion generated by proximity and the fear of falling.  On the other hand ‘Deborah’ as a name felt strained: scrambling for a dignity that swirled its skirts just out of the mud.  Again, and even within our own pretentiousness, we were raised to mock and fear pretension or social climbing.  There we were: barefoot Australian kids, stumbling over the bindi-eyes, while all the time we were forming these nuanced social prejudices.  They take a lot longer to shake off than they take to form.

I admired Debbie the dedicated teacher so much.  Debbie (never Deborah) whose surname I have long forgotten, was fresh out of University, pretty, very clever, and effortlessly upper-crust both intellectually and socially. She wore an unobtrusive gold bracelet: a present from her mother on her eighteenth birthday.  Mired in my mid-thirties and trailing so many mistakes – how I longed to be Debbie!

We each agreed to read one of the other’s favourite novels, bearing in mind the praises we had heard.  I fought to find what she liked in Woolf.  In this way, Debbie (and Woolf) showed me how to slow down, to leave Lawrence’s pell-mell rush of ideas and read poetic prose with a relaxed attention.  To read almost languidly and yield to its particular sensuousness, its sweet precision.  When I went on to read To the Lighthouse, it flew to the depth of my heart and my mind, and stays there to this day.  Debbie politely conceded that Lawrence’s writing is not without virtues.

We were both wrong, of course, in our dislikes.  But I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?

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5 Responses to “Learning to read Virginia Woolf”

  1. valkyrie1 Says:

    Another possibility: Deborah the biblical judge and warrior.

    • albertine Says:

      I’ll have to look her up. You do know that I was raised an atheist? So most of my Bible knowledge comes from things I have sung (I’m quite strong on St Cecilia) or people in 16thC plays.

  2. albertine Says:

    That’s odd – I thought there was a comment from Dac here – but maybe it’s only on my email.

  3. valkyrie1 Says:

    🙂 🙂 🙂 to being strong on St Cecilia. I didn’t know you were raised an atheist. Very unusual in them days.

    Dac put a comment on the Facebook announcement of this blog entry.

  4. Woman walking Max Says:

    Thank you for such a reflective and insightful piece about V Woolf & Lawrence and the younger you. I find the blend of personal and literary most satisfying to read.

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