4 December 2020

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

 My 'light' winter coat and boots have been pulled from the depths of the spare room closet.  There's a bit of snow on the ground and more Christmas trees in front windows than ever before this early in December.  It makes a cheery change!  Christmas will be different this year in many ways but for some, a slower pace just might mean it's better.  There was a case of Covid at the library but thankfully our staff member is having mild symptoms.  It's made me hate the idea of wearing both a mask and face shield a little less.  Perhaps it's not so bad to feel as though I'm working inside a terrarium if it means I'm protected.  Actually,  I've passed the point at which wearing a mask is weird....it will be a bit weird not to.   

Jacob's Room begins with Betty Flanders at the beach with her children.  She is writing a letter....

  Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them.  The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr Connor's little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun.

Flanders.  The word alone conjures a vision of poppies in a field, as described by John McCrae in his poignant poem published in 1915.  By giving Jacob the surname of Flanders, Virginia Woolf has suggested the image of wartime but the events of the Great War are still many years ahead.  In the meantime, Betty Flanders writes letters to friends and relations, mends her children's clothes and sees to the older boys' education.  In other words, life goes on from one day to the next.  

When Jacob is nineteen he leaves for Trinity College Cambridge.  As his circle of friends grows, Jacob becomes the centre point for a wider pool of characters.  Woolf explores the characters of those who form attachments of one sort or another with Jacob:  the friends he makes from various social circles, the women he has relationships with, his travelling companions while in Greece and Italy, Cornwall and London.   Indulge me in the joy of descriptive quote featuring a place I've explored many times....

   The rashest drivers in the world are, certainly, the drivers of post-office vans.  Swinging down Lamb's Conduit Street, the scarlet van rounded the corner by the pillar box in such a way as to graze the kerb and make the little girl who was standing on tiptoe to post a letter look up, half-frightened, half curious. 

Also, as you would expect from Woolf, there is commentary on the status of women in society.  One such character is Mrs Jarvis who is married to a clergyman.  She wanders the moors when she is unhappy and hides a book of poetry in her coat for reading when she is away from the house.  Mrs Jarvis contemplates leaving her husband but the scandal would ruin his career so she stays.  And another character, the feminist Julia Hedge, collects her books at the British Museum....

Her eye was caught by the final letters in Lord Macaulay's name.  And she read them all round the dome - the names of great men which remind us - 'Oh damn,' said Julia Hedge, 'why didn't they leave room for an Eliot or Brontë.'

Jacob's Room doesn't receive its share of the spotlight when it comes to Woolf's novels so I wasn't completely aware of what it entailed.  That it centred around a young man was obvious and the topic of the Great War was also attached to it but not much more than that.  But you won't find battlefield scenes, artillery or water-filled trenches.  In fact, at the halfway point I started to wonder whether I had muddled the synopsis of  Jacob's Room with something else.  The impact of the war does appear but not until the end of the book when Woolf's pen goes straight for the reader's heart.  For anyone who has read Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and was left feeling a bit pale when it was done, you'll recognize the feeling.  

Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf's first experimental novel, exceeded my expectations.  I'm still on the outside looking in when she writes about Greek gods but that's okay.  For me, a novel by Virginia Woolf would make the best sort of desert island book because there are seemingly endless things to discover, learn and enjoy.  

Portrait of a Young Man by Reginald Grenville Eves (1876 - 1941)


  1. I read this years ago, before I had children, and I tried it again a couple years ago and stopped. I wasn't sure I could bear it. But I loved it once, and really should read it again. I love her work, and I agree with you about always so much to learn from her about life, people, feelings, everything.

    1. It's hard to put into words what it is about Woolf's writing that becomes an obsession for some readers, but I'm glad it happened to me. And wishing your husband and granddaughter belated birthday wishes....the photos of them together are lovely!

  2. I tried to read this when I was about 15 and didn't understand it at all. Right reader, wrong time I think! I wanted to read more Woolf this year, but it's probably not going to happen. I'm tempted to kick off 2021 with Jacob's Room. I love the excerpts you've included.

    1. You were an ambitious reader at 15! At least you tried, Woolf wasn't on my radar at all at that age. I'm looking forward to rereading Orlando because it was so much fun and will cement more of the details.
      The excerpts were good ones, weren't they.....thanks, Anbolyn!