Sunday, 25 January 2009

A literary birthday: Virginia Woolf

Adeline Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) was born on this day in 1882. Happy 127th Birthday, Ms Woolf!

This amazing woman and prolific writer cannot be celebrated enough, in my opinion, for giving us such treasures as Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One's Own. Her entire existence was riddled with controversy, depression, and hardship. She lost her parents and a step-sister quite young, and suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her half brothers. She was accused of anti-semitism, snobbery and un-patriotic pacifism, and prone to deep depressions and "moods" (today we would call this bipolar) and was institutionalized more than once.

Her work has been criticised, scrutinised, and honoured; adapted for film, translated into many languages, and is revered, remembered and revised worldwide. For my part, I discovered her through my attraction to 'feminist' writing, and my penchant for second-hand bookshops. A friend of my mum's gave me a bookmark one teen birthday with Ms Woolf's picture on it. I hadn't heard of her, but was told she was a famous feminist writer. Later I saw a battered copy of The Waves in my local second-hand bookshop, and picked it up. I fell in love from page one with Woolf's dramatic, lilting prose that was a feast for my eyes and mind, even though at the time I probably didn't fully understand it.

My favourite Woolf novel so far (I haven't yet read all of them!) is Mrs Dalloway. I recently discovered that you can read the entire book online here. It's worth it - Mrs Dalloway is a charming novel, truly dream-like and fascinating. Lots of it is written in what was at the time an experimental 'stream-of-conciousness' style; it works wonderfully, as Woolf captures wholly the inner monolgue of a woman who, on the surface, is simply organising a party; but the appearance of an old lover stirs up her emotions and has her looking at her life from another angle. Clarissa Dalloway is beautifully portrayed, as are all the characters in Mrs Dalloway. If you've never read anything by Virginia Woolf, I suggest you start here.

Woolfs writing was influenced by (perhaps due to) her confusing and complex emotional inner life. "The beauty of the world ... has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder." (A Room of One's Own). From this alternate perspective came her intuition, her sensitivity to humanity. It is what imbues her writing with beauty and with truth. She also challenged many outdated stereotypes of her time regarding women and gender roles. One of her most famous novels, Orlando, is a fantastical biography, about a person whose life spans three generations and moves between both genders. Woolf once said: "It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple: one must be a woman manly, or a man womanly."

Her tragic death by her own hands remains legendary to this day. She filled her coat pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse. But today we celebrate her birth - and the fact that, so many years on, her work is still appreciated and loved, still touches lives, still generates controversy, still brings people closer to themselves. We could ask no more from a great writer - and that she is. Virginia Woolf, Happy Birthday.

"Beauty is everywhere, and beauty is only two finger's-breadth from goodness." - The Common Reader 'Montaigne'-Ch. 6

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