In Search of Virginia Woolf


Inspired by “Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith” at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in February, and embarrassed by not getting to the end of any of Woolf’s books or even the wonderful biography by Hermione Lee, I persuaded a friend to come with me to Rodmell for a day out.

rodmell

Rodmell was the get-away-cottage that Leonard and Virginia Woolf purchased in 1919 and to which they moved on a permanent basis during the war. It is where Virginia wrote, and reworked, many of her famous novels. It is also, of course, where she died.

Having seen Patti Smith’s photographs I was keen to see the bed Virginia slept in and her walking stick. Delightfully, I got to see both. In those days, of course, people sleeping alone would have slept in a single bed but it was still a surprise looking at the room with 21st century eyes. The bookcases are all original though  most of the original books owned by Virginia were sold long before the house became a museum/shrine. All that remains are the collected works of Shakespeare which Virginia had covered herself shortly before her death. 

Virginias bed

I think that it is still possible to get a sense of the woman and writer even after so many decades and changes to the house. The handpainted fireplace, for instance, gives a wonderful sense of the artistic life which surrounded VW. Her sister, Vanessa, was an important artist of the early 20th century.

The bedroom has terrific views from two large windows of the garden, the church and the countryside. It must have been inspiring to work there. It was a tranquil place and the Woolf’s spent a great deal of time in arranging it. It was here in the garden that they entertained their many visitors.

MonksHouseGarden

Within view of the house is the writing hut where VW repaired to do her daily stint of writing. VW had a view of the garden but not so much of it as to provide a great distraction from her work. 

VWswritinghut

The house itself is a collection of cottages knocked together to form one large building. The house, when bought by the Woolf’s, consisted of an entrance, a sitting room, a dining room and a tiny kitchen downstairs. By all accounts it was a mean kitchen and the Woolf’s had a newer extension built to accommodate some modern accessories. The upstairs had one large and two small bedrooms. The toilet was outside. I assume that after VM’s death, Leonard made some improvements. 

upperfloor

The house and remaining possessions provide a connection with the two writers but do not necessarily give much of an insight into how they lived and wrote. My friend thought she could feel something of VW’s spirit in the writing hut, though. I understand more of how VW wrote thanks a video I saw a few nights ago with Elaine Showalter, who talked about VW’s style of writing and how she put her novels together. The villagers I met who had known VW mentioned how she used to walk around mouthing lines from her books as she tried them out. I can imagine it was easier to get away with that in the countryside that in central London. 

I am not sure that I understand Virginia Woolf’s writing any better than I did (despite having written and read endless commentaries on her novels during my MA) but I have been inspired to pick up Hermione Lee’s biography again and find VW’s works on my Kindle. What can a writer learn from visiting this remote location? Possibly that what a woman writer needs is not just a room of her own but also sustaining relationships to help her realise her potentials. 

Patricia Highsmith investigates the religious right


Set in the early 1980s during the Reagan era when Christian Fundamentalism was on the rise, Patricia Highsmith’s People Who Knock on the Door chronicles the events which move a middle class American family out of their comfort zone into the world of uncertainty.

Highsmith, best known for her crime stories based around the character of Tom Ripley and, more recently, for her lesbian novel Carol demonstrates her superb plotting and storytelling skills in this novel. Naturally, there are crimes in the novel but not the kind of Highsmith-type crime we are used to. These are moral crimes set against the backdrop of the belief system.

The issues at the heart of this novel are the effects that any kind of religious (or, for that matter, political) fundamentalism has on family and friends and changes the attitudes and behaviour of the believer. When Richard Alderman becomes a born-again Christian he becomes enmeshed in the world of the fundamentalists with their counselling sessions, preaching, outreach groups, knocking on doors, gossip-mongering and pamphleteering.  In his zeal he cannot appreciate that his elder son, wife and mother-in-law do not share his beliefs and have a right to their own viewpoint.

He manages to convince his gullible youngest son that he has been “saved” from near-death and indoctrinates him. Highsmith shows the way in which a vulnerable teenager can easily fall prey to such a rigorous influence when there is no credible opposition. Richard uses his new-found religious faith to alienate his eldest son and to punish him for being a nice kid who is not taken in by the mavericks.

The novel covers television evangelism, prolife vs abortion debate, class, religious freedom, politics and the American obsessions with guns. All this is done is a very readable story which jogs along until the explosion towards the end.

The novel did not get particularly good reviews when it was first published despite being, in my opinion, one of her best novels. Her US editor did not recommend it to his publishers, Harper & Row so it was picked up by Penzler Books. Marilyn Stasio, in the New York Times of November 24, 1985 did not regard it as one of her better books. There are some aspects of the novel which jar, and which have been picked up by reviewers on Good Reads, namely that the young Arthur and his friends seem to drink a surprising number of adult drinks rather than beer (e.g. Old Fashioned cocktails) and hang around old people a lot (e.g. Norma).

Having read many of Highsmith’s books over thirty years, I am now persuaded to return to her as a storyteller.

Good Reads book challenge


goodreads challenge

At the start of this year I set myself a reading challenge – to read 20 books over the course of the year. I did this without any real expectations but so far I have read 9 books in print and as ebooks, which is 45% of the challenge. I am thinking that as it is only April I may have to up the challenge. 

The great thing about the books I have been reading is that I have been reading for pleasure not for insights into writing or inspiration for my own writing. 

I have acquired the books from various channels – recommendations, free books from authors I follow, hand-me-downs from friends, books found in bookshops and books donated to the free library at my local railway station.  I have read both print and electronic books, with print books being in the ascendancy. This is a change from previous years when I was glued to my Kindle. 

At the moment I am reading “The Miniaturist” (a hand-me-down) which got off to a slow start but now I am hooked. I am taking it with me to Sofia tomorrow and when I have finished it will donate it to the hotel library for someone to find. 

Already packed is “Red Square at Noon” by one of my favourite dissidents: Natalya Gorbanevskaya. I am currently writing a novel loosely based on the experiences  of Gorbanevskaya and feel ready, at this point in my writing and research, to sit down and read her account of the trials of the anti-CSSR invasion of August 1968. I have a copy of the original Penguin edition displayed below. 

I have carried this book around for nearly a year waiting for the right moment to read it. Somehow, this seems to be the moment. 

As for the reading challenge, I am looking forward to discovering new books from new authors during the remainder of the year. I wonder what will come into my hands and how they will come there. Perhaps, other people’s reading challenges will lead me in new literary directions. I have many many books yet to read on my Kindle and my bookshelf but this year there seems to be time to start tackling them as I will, one by one. 

I wonder if any of my readers and followers have any recommendations for me. …..