Monday, November 28, 2011

Through a glass romantically …

The Captain's Death Bed by Virginia Woolf (Hogarth Press, 1950) 224 pages 

But no living writer, try though he may, can bring back the past again, because no living writer can bring back the ordinary day. He sees it through a glass, sentimentally, romantically; it is either too pretty or too brutal; it lacks ordinariness. Virgina Woolf

When I was younger and put pen to paper (and back then it really was pen to paper) I always felt intimidated at the notion of trying to write a personal essay. The first essays that I eagerly read (outside of an academic context) were those of Virginia Woolf. I voraciously pursued all of her writing: fiction, biographies, diaries, essays, and all things Bloomsbury.

You can imagine my excitement in finding this final edition of Woolf's collected essays at the St. Michael's College Book Sale this fall when I realized that this was an edition printed by Woolf's own Hogarth Press and edited by her husband Leonard Woolf. I love everything about this book: it's size (5"x7 1/2"), the way it feels in my hands, the smell of the book, the green hard cover, its yellowed pages and even the slightly cryptic inscription left by a friend (or possibly lover?) in fading blue ink on the front page:

See p. 90
All good wishes
from H.G.
Jan. 1, 1959 

Was it a teacher who left the message for H.G.? A lover? A doting parent? Surely it was a man, one who sought to instruct, to advise and set one on the right course ...

Woolf, that most modern of writers, had a passion for late 18th c. and 19th c. eccentrics and geniuses and a deep reverence for the masters of art and literature. But why would she pursue such an obscure collection of thoughts and ruminations you may ask. (Although, confessedly, why would I want to read about the doings of artists and writers from almost a hundred years ago here you might also inquire).

You might understand her interest in the English art critic John Ruskin (with his "petulant eloquence"), the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev ("he chose to write with the most fundamental part of his being as a writer"), Thomas Hardy ("that faculty for putting the telescope to his eye and seeing strange, grim pictures") and her own father the writer/critic Leslie Stephens ("If one moment he rebuked a daughter for smoking a cigarette ... she had only to ask him if she might be a painter, and he assured her that so long as she took her work seriously he would give her all the help he could.") As a writer, her thoughts on "Modern Letters", "Reading" and the "Cinema" intrigue me but what of the other essays?

They are as numerous as they are obscure: the ornithologist (White's Selbourne), the sea captain from the Napoleonic Wars turned novelist (The Captain's Death Bed), a governess to the well born (Selina Trimmer), the pastor kept a largely uneventful diary for 65 years (Life Itself), the painter Walter Siskert (Walter Siskert) ... and then are some that are a tad underwhelming: imagined rides on "aeroplanes" (how odd  it seems to pair Woolf with an "aeroplane" (Flying Over London) or getting a dose of "gas" at the dentist (Gas).

But what could this offer a 21st c. writer/reader like me, even an avid follower of Woolf's? Even one who is such a lit geek that she has photo of Woolf over her writing desk and mug with her face on it. Even I find my fixation strange. But ... in the manner of those who are besotted with all that the person they love is involved in, I am fixated on all that Woolf is interested in. Yes she was a snob, could be a nasty gossip, said vicious things about the Jews despite being married to one whom she clearly loved and doted on, was a bit too beguiled by the aristocracy, cared not whit for attire and feminine accouterments as she aged and acquired that haphazard look that some older women have when they are not careful with their dress. But how she dazzled with her prose, how playful and quick she was ... how she soars when she writes leaving us lesser mortals here below pining to be up there in the clouds with her.

Woolf at work ...
The proverbial jewel in the crown in this collection is the essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" that speaks of the importance of character in fiction and likely that was why it was placed dead center in the collection. I'd like to address that essay in a separate blog.

And because of Woolf, specifically because of Woolf, I have tried (tepidly, fearfully, at first) to write my own essays on small and obscure subjects - hence the blog and other small bits of ephemera. The smallness of the topics incite me to write further because even though the topics are odd and perhaps deemed irrelevant by some, she infuses beauty and clarity in all that she writes.

I have a theory: read well (and hope to) write well. I also have a mystical desire to touch the books that were produced by her own press with a not so secret hope that the magic and power that infuses her books will be transferred in a small way to me as a writer, as an acolyte.

I cannot bring her back in her "ordinariness" in my imagination, only "sentimentally, romantically" but that will suffice for me.

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