Disclaimer: I LOVE Virginia Woolf, so this is a very biased post. I would apologize for this in advance, but I can’t because I LOVE her that much. You should too.
One of the many perks of going to Harvard Divinity School is taking super interesting and unique classes like “Literature of Journey and Quest” or “Children’s Literature and Religion.” This semester, I’m taking another literature course, this time on Virginia Woolf and religion. I had read Virginia’s (yes, I love her so much I’m going to refer to her as Virginia throughout this post because if she were alive, we would be on a first name basis) masterpiece, To the Lighthouse last year in my Literature of Journey and Quest course, and immediately fell in love. Therefore, when an ENTIRE course on Virginia and Religion came up on the course list, I jumped at the opportunity to delve into her canon.
What I didn’t realize was that delving into Virginia’s canon would mean delving into a very personal and emotional search for meaning. Virginia’s writing is riddled with grief. Virginia lost her mother at age thirteen and was never the same. She also experienced multiple emotional breaks and was barred from having children by her doctors, something that she never quite got over even though her writing projects sustained her. Of this grief, she writes, “The tragedy of [my mother’s] death was not that it made [me], now and then very intensely, unhappy. It was that it made her unreal; and [me] solemn, self-conscious. We were made to act parts that we did not feel; to fumble for words that we did not know. It obscured, it dulled” (“A Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being, 95).
This essay was one of my first assignments of the semester and has become the lens through which I read Virginia’s entire canon. Her description of loss as a person becoming “unreal” has resonated with me so strongly that I have tried to find a way to integrate it in as many commentaries as possible on her novels. (Hence, this post.) It is such a powerful description because it is so true. For me, that is. I think through her writing, Virginia has tried to make the people she lost, most especially her mother, real again. She knows that she can never actually accomplish it, but through the very act of writing, she can cope. And, for me, through the very act of reading Virginia working through this has helped me to cope. As human beings we are constantly in the face of suffering. Finding a way to break through that suffering—finding a book to break through that suffering—is invaluable. And, such a gift.
Why I choose to write about Virginia here though is the way in which she has also got me thinking about women’s and gender issues, also something I did not expect to delve into when I delved into her canon. Virginia wrote at a time when much of women’s writing was thought of as “stream of consciousness” writing instead of organized, structured, re-structured, and well thought out writing. Virginia wrote in a man’s world, and had to stake her claim not only among men, but also among a group of writers trying to do something different. Virginia wanted a new form of the novel, not one that simply went from beginning to end like the Victorian form, but one that followed a circular pattern of time, one that more accurately portrayed life, the human mind, and the complexity of emotions that are felt every moment of every day. Virginia wanted to find meaning and create meaning (which she does, read To the Lighthouse, it will change your life), but do so in a way that expressed her world.
Some thought that this new form was very “stream of consciousness” and “typical” of what a woman would produce. But, this could not be further from the truth. Virginia wrote and re-wrote, worked and re-worked all of her stories. They were mapped out in her mind, then on her paper, and then re-mapped again and again until they were mind-blowing portraits of life. Virginia revolutionized writing in the face of naysayers and a patriarchal world. Virginia showed them if you ask me.
This got me thinking about how we can harness grief and anger about gender issues for good. Virginia reveals that it is not despite her grief and the world in which she wrote that she produced such amazing work, but it is IN SPITE of her grief and the world in which she wrote that she changed the form of the novel forever.
I have this joke with my roommates that when we’re tired and don’t want to go to class, or when we’re hungry but there’s nothing to eat, or when we have papers due in two hours and haven’t written one word that we remain active. We say, “I AM NOT A VICTIM” and then get up and go to class, or make something for dinner that we actually do have, or get those blasted papers done. (Or we just stop being lazy.) I think that this is what Virginia did too. Virginia was not a victim to the losses she has experienced or to the way that her world told her that her writing was not masculine enough. Virginia was revolutionary.
Do I think that suffering exists and women are discriminated against in order for action to occur? Absolutely not. But, do I think that even though it exists (and while we fight the fight for this discrimination to cease to exist) can we harness our anger from discrimination for action? Absolutely. Thank you, Virginia, for bringing even more meaning to my life.