Today, I have an excuse to acknowledge one of my greatest obsessions: Virginia Woolf. If I could, I’d probably write up a post on her weekly, but that has the potential to become boring and repetitive to people who aren’t as enthusiastically single-minded as I tend to be.
Today is special because it’s her birthday. Virginia was born on this day in 1882, making her 134, assuming that my math is right (which is rarely a safe assumption). It’s wild to me to think that 100 years ago the Hogarth Press was still only an idea, and the majority of the novels that I love had yet to take shape. Virginia was living through WWI, and had only completed her first novel, The Voyage Out.
I thought about making this post something of a book review, the way I did for Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, but at the moment I’m leaning more towards an explanation of how my VW obsession began and how it’s grown, because she’s sure to come up again in the future. I’ve been rereading A Room of One’s Own for the umpteenth time, just because I love it. I’ll probably review it later in the week.
The Virginia Woolf Story, as we’ll call it, is closely tied in with my determination to pursue English despite any obstacles. I discovered Virginia my junior year of high school. I had heard of her before, but when I attempted to read Mrs. Dalloway as a freshman I couldn’t push past the first twenty-some pages. I didn’t understand the point of a novel where nothing happens– I hadn’t yet fallen in love with the sheer beauty of words. When I was a junior, though, I hit a roadblock in my writing. I had a teacher who always said “To be a good writer, you must read good writers,” so I decided to find an author to emulate. A friend leant me the third volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries when I told him that I needed a writer who was simultaneously colloquial and formal, casual and flowery.
That was the turning point. I devoured the diary. She was perfect. What I encountered then, which I have since recognised as one of my favourite aspects of Virginia, was the mix of Victorian and modernist. She was born in 1882, and the Victorian era ended in 1901. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and the academic elite to which he belonged, was decidedly Victorian. The new generation ushered in a new age in literature, though– Virginia and her peers heralded the beginning of modernism. Her writing combines the elegance and flowery language of the Victorians with the new horizons in thought and perspective of modernism. She introduced and perfected stream-of-consciousness writing, but she was undeniably a snob, comfortable in her world of books and papers and academia.
I loved the diary because it was writing– just writing. There was no plot, no characters beyond Virginia and Leonard, their hopeless maid Nellie, and the countless names that V drops in passing,. Virginia used her diary as a space for writing practice, and she conjures up scenes and sensations masterfully in the privacy of an unpublished space.
After the diary, I found Mrs. Dalloway again, and this time I fell headfirst into 1920s London and Clarissa’s poignant, painful inner life. My betta fish is named Septimus, after Septimus Warren Smith. At the end of my junior year, I begged my English teacher to let me write a Dalloway paper for the end of term, and she agreed that I could, in addition to the assigned work, so I did.
Volume 3 of the diary and Mrs. Dalloway sent me spiralling into a world of Virginia and Bloomsbury and interwar British literature. I fell irretrievably in love with her and her world. I’ve written two papers on her and last spring I gave a thirty minute presentation on her relationships with her nuclear family, her sister Nessa, and her husband, Leonard. I have nearly twenty books either by her or about her. I drive my mother crazy because she thinks I don’t read anything else (which was true, for a while).
This year, my work with Virginia has reached a peak. Last semester, I went to a professor’s office hours to ask about research opportunities in the English department. He pointed out that the work he does involves reading some stuff, thinking some stuff about it, and then writing some stuff. It’s fairly solitary work. He pointed me to another professor in the department, though, who happened to be one of the key scholars in the Woolf Online project. Woolf Online is a digital archive of To the Lighthouse; I had heard of it, but never explored it further.
The next week, I met with Professor C, and after twenty minutes of pleasant chatter, I walked out of her office with a bemused but pleased expression and a research project. She hadn’t been looking for any additional labour for Woolf Online, which has been launched for a few years now and is more or less in stasis. I brought up the call for papers for the Virginia Woolf Conference, though, and she pulled it up directly. It happens to be on heritage this year, and it invites papers on Virginia’s effect on heritage; its effect on her; her experience of archives, museums, and libraries; literary heritage; family heritage.
What better prompt could there be for a paper on Woolf Online? We started brainstorming, I happened to say that the archive could be thought of like a family album, and that was it. I left with the direction to read an article on archives and pull up an abstract.
This all leads up to my announcement. I have officially submitted a paper proposal to the 2016 Virginia Woolf Conference. All proposals were due today; Professor C and I finalised ours over the weekend. I have my fingers crossed that I’m accepted, and then I might have the opportunity to go to England this summer and attend the conference.
I never would have imagined this when I fell in love with Virginia Woolf three years ago. I didn’t realise what I was preparing for when I devoured A Room of One’s Own and Orlando. I’m excited to see what might come of this, though, and eager to do homage to the amazing woman who inspires me every day.