15 June 2017

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf had much to say about women living in a man's world.  Women could be bought and sold, forced into marriage, work in slavery under the title of 'wife', have education and the vote beyond their reach.  Avenues and opportunity available to sons were nothing more than fantasy for their sisters.  When an aunt dies and leaves Virginia the sum of £500 a year, it's a key that opens a door.

'However, as I say, my aunt died, and whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off; fear and bitterness go.  Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about.  No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds.  Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever.  Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness.  I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me.  I need not flatter any man; has nothing to give me.'

There were times while reading A Room of One's Own when I struggled to understand what Virginia was trying to say.  Sections rich with a stream of consciousness narrative can be difficult to wade through, but there were so many times when she expressed exactly how I feel.  That this book was first published in 1928, and I'm nodding in agreement in 2017, starkly illustrates there's still room for improvement.

Asked to deliver a paper on the topic of women and fiction, Woolf blends essay with fiction, She expresses the frustration of women who yearn to be educated as equally as their male counterparts.  Today, my contemporaries are still fighting for wage parity with their male colleagues - this in societies where women are 'allowed' to work outside the home.  The freedom to earn money still eludes many women around the world.  But Woolf has room to see the situation from another angle.

'Moreover, in a hundred years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be the protected sex.  Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them.  The nursemaid will heave coal.  The shopwoman will drive an engine.  All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared - as, for example (here a squad of soldiers marched down the street) that women and clergymen and gardeners live longer than other people.  Remove their  protection, expose them to the same exertions and activities, make them soldiers and sailors and engine-drivers and dock labourers, and will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men that one will say, 'I saw a woman today', as one used to say, 'I saw an aeroplane'.'

I was also struck by Woolf's observation that much of the history of women was never documented because it was mundane.  While men were acknowledged for exploring, inventing, ruling, and acquiring medals in battle, women were raising children, cooking, and cleaning the home.  Raising the next generation to be contributing citizens is taken for granted.  I'm reminded that many women were not paid for the added responsibility and workload of taking in young evacuees during the Blitz in WWII.  Why, it's just women do.

In the last few pages Virginia expresses the importance of being oneself.  Despite outside influences no one holds the key to your mind.  Assigning a fictional sister named Judith to Shakespeare, the author wonders if her creative skills would be encouraged as her brother's were.  Women must continue to support each other and strive to be recognized.  Despite her statement that freedom to write comes with a room of one's own and £500 a year, Woolf acknowledges that 'to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while'.

A Room of One's Own is a book I'll return to again and again.  It's bold, sad, clever, and poignant.  And I was very impressed with Penguin for publishing this book with four blank pages at the back for jotting notes.

Virginia Woolf's desk

26 May 2017

Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson

Visiting Virginia and Leonard Woolf's home, Monk's House, this summer is high on my wishlist.  It has been interesting to read the reviews of visitors who have already made their way to this area of the South Downs.  For some it was a pilgrimage, for others it was simply something to do.  It has struck me as odd to visit such a place and the only comment is about a lack of parking.  A couple of weeks ago I started reading A Room of One's Own, but by page 26 I found myself wondering more about Virginia as a person than concentrating on the words on the page.  There isn't time to read Hermione Lee's detailed biography but Nicolson's book hit the mark perfectly,  And being the son of Vita Sackville-West, the details feel warm rather than clinical.

'Nothing has really happened until it has been described.  So you must write many letters to your family and friends, and keep a diary.'  Virginia Woolf to Nigel Nicolson

I love the image of Nicolson as a young boy, catching butterflies with Virginia Woolf, while she shares her thoughts and ideals.  At one point, while visiting Vita at Long Barn, she questioned the boys in detail about their morning, not accepting short quips in reply.  Observing in detail was a lesson Nicolson never forgot.

Perhaps it was the lack of a smile in photos, her strong opinions, and intimidating writing style that created an image in my mind of a steely no-nonsense woman.  But reading descriptions of Virginia's personal anguish while waiting for reviews, her desire to be heard but shying away when asked to speak, and struggling with a 'constant roar' in the background of her thoughts, reveal the depths of her fragile nature.  Both Virginia and her sister Vanessa endured the loss of their parents, brother, and knowledge of a half-sister in a mental institution.  Left in a household with two stepbrothers who abused the girls, to what degree isn't clear, must have been incredibly unsettling, to say the least.

With a sum of money and property left to the Stephens adult children, they were finally able to cut familial ties with the Duckworth brothers and buy a home in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.  Although, Virginia was far from ready to join the ranks of party-goers...

'She remained devoted to her few women friends, and only once did she consent to attend a party in the smart world she had renounced.  "I went to a dance last night," she told Violet, "and found a dim corner where I sat and read In Memoriam, while Nessa danced every dance till 2:30."'

Virginia eventual marriage to Leonard Woolf, and their creation of the Hogarth Press was a testament to commitment and perseverance.  I was surprised to learn that in four years of operation the company had a net profit of only £90.    Virginia's journalism was bringing in £100 annually and Leonard's wages as a writer on international affairs were meagre.  But somehow they managed to afford the purchase of Monk's House in 1919 for £700.

'Monk's House would never rate more than one star for bed and breakfast.  O remember it in the Woolfs' days as a simple place, rather larger than a cottage, rather smaller than a house, not shabby exactly, but untidy, with saucers of pet food left on the floor and books on each tread of the narrow staircase.'

I particularly enjoyed finding out the Woolfs referred to the WC as Mrs Dalloway, and Vita Sackville-West's opinion regarding Leonard's plans for the garden by stating 'you can't recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex'.  Another wonderful discovery was that Elizabeth Bowen had visited Virginia at Monk's House.  Being slightly in awe of Bowen's writing, knowing she sat by the fire will make my visit there even more meaningful.

As the years moved closer to 1939, and Virginia's depression crept back, it's unbearable to imagine the 'constant roar' coupled with anxiety and uncertainty.  Bombs were collapsing homes in the blink of an eye, there was rationing, the evacuation of women and children, and bleakness.  But even through all this, Virginia uses poetical phrases to describe the scene....

'You never escape the war.  Very few buses.  Tubes closed.  No children.  No loitering.  Everyone humped with a gas-mask.  Strain and grimness.  At night it's so verdurous and gloomy that one expects a badger or a fox to prowl along the pavement.  A reversion to the middle ages with all the space and silence of the country set in this forest of black homes'.

Less than two years later, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse, not far from Monk's House.  Her ashes are interred in the garden.

Virginia Woolf, 1939
Photograph by Gisèle Freund

11 May 2017

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

'A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.'

I remember the day this book arrived in the mail and can't believe it was 2009.  Not long after I found a group of people in this blogsphere who had years of experience with authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, Penelope Lively, Marghanita Laski, and Dorothy Whipple.  These were the authors hiding in plain sight.  While looking for something to read set in the English countryside there is any number of classics, at the other end of the spectrum, plenty of chic lit.  Once introduced to this Aladdin's cave of literature I ordered title upon title and bought more bookcases.  Now the books sit and wait.

Susan Hill imposed a challenge upon herself to read from her shelves for a year.  As she meanders through her home, browsing titles and pulling out books for a closer look, she recounts the memories associated with her acquisitions.  Being a well-known author, the people Hill comes into contact with take Howards End is on the Landing to a level higher than just a snoop around her shelves.  While on a sleeper train from London to Manchester in 1961....

'But this time is was only Manchester after all, in the company of Katherine Whitehorn, Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Jane Howard, grand-seeming ladies all, and terribly grown-up beside a student in a Marks & Spencer V-necked sweater.  Elizabeth Jane was very kind about my book, and then I talked about student-cooking-on-gas-ring, with Katherine, who had written a book about just that, and Elizabeth David, who had not.'

Like Susan Hill, I rarely read books featuring Australia or Canada, and laughed when just yesterday a customer at the library expressed the same view.  The fact that we were standing in a Canadian library meant we assumed the body language of people sharing a sordid secret, but...you like what you like.  At one point though, I took exception to Hill's broad statement about short stories...'Nobody reads them but people go on buying them'.  I love short stories and stock plenty on my shelves.  Hill mentions that she reads certain stories over and over again from her many volumes so perhaps she meant to imply they're not a popular item.  In any case, she had me reaching for the smelling salts.

Howards End is on the Landing is a book you will want to read with a notebook and pen nearby to jot down interesting titles.  Although, the author would simply underline anything she found interesting but this is something I would never do.  Marking a book, folding down a page, or leaving the book open while face down are activities that separate readers into opposite camps...I digress.   Hill considers The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen to be her masterpiece (which I've read) and The Last September as a favourite (which I haven't).  This also brings to mind one of the intricacies of stocking books - the act of saving books you desperately want to read, but don't, because you can't bear the thought of having an undiscovered piece of writing by an author.  Although, thinking back to a 'find' from Harper Lee's estate, as well as Stella Gibbons' Pure Juliet, perhaps I shouldn't be so precious.

Another behaviour we book lovers seem to have in common is the shelf of books that seemed like a good idea at the time, but don't get much attention after a week.  

'Small hardbacked books bought in the run-up to Christmas or Valentines's or Mother's Day are non-books.  They are about Everything Being Rubbish or how to microwave a budgerigar or where to go before you die, or why Slough is the armpit of the universe, they are little anthologies of love poems or things read at funerals or cartoons about politicians.'

This made me laugh and think of the books I bought on the art of tea, when what I probably wanted at the time was a nice hot cuppa.  There's also a small chapter called Things that Fall out of Books, as a case in point, hiding in my book was a ticket stub from a local theatre for See How They Run.  A reminder of a lovely day out on September 30, 2012.  I know my books will one day end up in someone else's home so I'm passing on the small thrill that comes from a bit of ephemera from the past.  Ticket stubs are tucked into random books on my shelves, read or not, and sometimes the person finding a surprise is me.

If you own a copy of Howards End is on the Landing consider taking it along with you while on holiday this summer.  It's a book lover's delight, particularly if you're a fan of twentieth-century literature.


1 May 2017

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim

During a thorough weeding exercise a couple of years ago, one of the few green spine Virago Modern Classics the library owned was chosen to be pulled.  It's such a shame when a book is discarded due to lack of circulation when the binding is still tight.  This was not the case with Christopher and Columbus.  I can barely make out the title along the spine for white lines running end to end as the book has been wrenched during readings.  And the pages are yellow, but still more than good enough for another read, or two.

Twins, Anna-Rose (older by twenty minutes) and Anna-Felicitas are seventeen and sailing across the ocean on the St. Luke to America without the benefit of an escort.  Orphaned, and then relinquished by relatives in England, they're on their way to New York and yet another family.  The Great War is underway so the journey is a treacherous one with German submarines lurking beneath the water.  The girls sit wide-eyed, with blankets pulled up to their chins, as they watch the ships population move within their respective class sections.

Having led a sheltered life, the girls are unsure about everything, but emanate a sense of joie de vivre that is utterly irresistible.  Another passenger on the ship, Mr Twist, takes it upon himself to act as a guardian of sorts to the girls.  The two extremely naive sisters have won the lottery when it comes to serendipitous friendships.  Mr Twist has made a fortune from his design of a non-dribble teapot and is the best of men.  His fortune has also enabled Mr Twist's mother and sister to move up through the classes...

'His mother passed from her straitened circumstances to what she still would only call a modest competence, but what in England would have been regarded as wallowing in money.  She left off being middle-class, and was received into the lower upper-class, the upper part of this upper-class being reserved for great names like Astor, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.  With these Mrs Twist could not compete.  She would no doubt some day, for Edward was only thirty and there were still coffee-pots....'

I laughed out loud several times while making my way through this book.  The only drawback is that after awhile, at five hundred pages long, it all gets to be a bit too syrupy.  Mr Twist goes to all sorts of lengths for the sake of the girls and it becomes obvious they'll never be happy to part ways.  Published in 1919, this sort of situation garners all sorts of gossip amongst guests in the hotels the trio visit along the way.  It's apparent to the reader, long before the characters, what the eventual outcome must be. 

Christopher and Columbus is a fitting title for a story about adventurous sisters, and it's thoroughly charming.  Perfect as a summer read or when you're in the mood for something light.

Two Sisters by Pierre-August Renoir
1889