Woolf on War

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On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some birthday cake
for a brilliant writer with a ‘gift of wings.’
** Linger to ponder some
of the various threads that hold a novel together.
** Savor a last ½ cup remembering
an artist’s community in Bloomsbury, London.
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First Sip:

She is not afraid of pain.
The dark places attract her as well as the light,
and she has the wisdom to know that
not all dark places need light.

– Jeanette Winterson
in her essay about the literary works
of Virginia Woolf.1


Slice of Cake:

In 1928, Virginia Woolf stood up in a lecture hall at Cambridge University
and gave the first of two lectures titled ‘Women and Fiction.’

In these lectures, Woolf imagines:
What if Shakespeare had a sister who was also a writer?
Who was just as talented as her brother?
Would she now be just as famous as he is?

She wouldn’t. And Woolf goes on to explain why not.

These lectures are where she first says: “A woman must have money
and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

The very next year, Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, an essay based on these lectures.

By hook or by crook, I hope you will
possess yourselves of money enough
to travel and to idle,
to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to
dream over books and loiter at street corners
and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.

– from A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf

I am one of many, many writers who was unquestionably changed and positively inspired by A Room of One’s Own. I read it for the first time during my gap year, and it made a big impression on my impressionable 17-year-old self.1

I read it again more than 20 years later, just as I was starting to take my own writing seriously. I was amazed how big an impression A Room of One’s Own made once again—this time on my impressionable 40-year-old self.

My favorite part of A Room of One’s Own is where she talks about writing what you most want to write.

So long as you write what you wish to write
that is all that matters.
And whether it matters for ages or only for hours
nobody can say.

– from A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf

I get two things from this one terrific quote.

First, there’s nobody handing out writer certificates. I am a writer because I spend my time writing. And nobody (not even my internal critic) knows yet whether any of it is worth the bother.

Second, writing needs to come from the core, from what I most want to write, from what matters most to me. It needs to come from my beliefs, needs, observations, ideas, fears, from my past, my present, and my hopes for the future.

There’s no formula to art. Poetic licenses are self-issued.

Later, of course, there is re-writing, and editing, and input from trusted readers, and eventually an audience. But first, I need to get down in writing exactly what I most want to say. And that needs to be fearless. Then, and perhaps most difficult of all, then I need to hold on during all the re-writing, editing, and input—hold on to that essential core: What I wish to write.

And doesn’t that sound easy?

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books,
hesitating at no subject however trivial

or however vast. 

– from A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf

Several years later I tried reading another book by Virginia Woolf: her novel Mrs Dalloway. I have to admit, I couldn’t get through it. Or even get past the first few chapters.

The novel Mrs Dalloway starts simply enough. Here’s the first line:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

It takes place over a single day, the day that Clarissa Dalloway is giving a party.

As Clarissa walks out to do buy flowers for her party, the busy London streets thrill and exhilarate her.

Heaven only knows
why one loves it so…
In the swing, tramp, and trudge;
in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars,
omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging;
brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and
the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was
what she loved; life; London;
this moment in June.

– from Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf

This is beautiful prose. But after a few more chapters, I was lost.

How I finally learned to read this novel—how I learned to read Virginia Woolf’s fiction as a whole—was, honestly, a two-step process.

First, I watched a movie version: Mrs Dalloway (1997) with Vanessa Redgrave. It was excellent. And seeing the plot on screen helped orient me through the plot in the novel.

Second, I learned to, well, read a little more slowly, yes, but also to trust Woolf’s prose. Trust that her long, intricate sentences will lead me through to her long, intricate thoughts.

Woolf can gallop English.
…She can speed the rational world to a blur and
halt in a second to make us see for the first time
a flower we have trodden on every day…

She travels longer and longer distances,
hoping we will follow, hoping that she can keep the course.

Sometimes she goes too fast
or takes a high fence badly. She is unhorsed.
She gets back on.

Those who do go with her
know that her reward, and theirs, is more than
a gallop on a fine day… Those who go with her know that
the name of her horse is Pegasus.

Virginia Woolf has a gift of wings.

– from Art [Objects]: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery
Jeanette Winterson1

I’ve now read and re-read Mrs Dalloway many times,
and I’ve found Woolf’s thoughts to be well worth the trip.

As Jeanette Winterson writes: ‘She travels longer and longer distances’ but ‘those who do go with her know that…Virginia Woolf has a gift of wings.’

Happy 138th Birthday
** Virginia Woolf

– born 25 January 1882
in South Kensington, London, England


Linger Awhile:

One cannot pick up
a single one of her books and read a page
without feeling more alive.

– May Sarton
about Virginia Woolf

I’ve been thinking this week about the threads within Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway.

detail from The Other Room
by Vanessa Bell
from the Estate of Vanessa Bell

What a morning—
fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge!
For so it had always seemed to her…

– from Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf

The first story thread of the novel is Clarissa’s party preparations: The ‘lark’ and ‘plunge’
the noisy vibrancy of the London streets on a June day.

Woolf’s description of the party itself is wonderful. Anyone who’s ever given a party knows the anxiety and self-doubt that Clarissa struggles with as her party gets started. Who hasn’t thought to themslelves: Why do I do these things?

Oh dear, it was going to be a failure;
a complete failure, Clarissa felt it in her bones…
Why, after all, did she do these things?
…She did think it mattered, her party,
and it made her feel quite sick to know that it was
all going wrong, all falling flat.
Anything, any explosion, any horror was better than
people wandering aimlessly, standing in a bunch at a corner.

– from Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf

But there’s a second thread to the novel Mrs Dalloway.

As Clarissa walks out to buy her flowers, the story shifts to the point of view of other people: to Clarissa’s neighbors who greet her on the street corner; to a friend she passes without seeing; and to a young couple that Clarissa never will meet: Lucrezia and Septimus Smith.

Spoiler Warning

If you haven’t yet read
Mrs Dalloway by
Virginia Woolf
or seen the excellent 1997 Vanessa Redgrave movie,
be warned that there are spoilers ahead.
(You can skip down to “Half Cup More”)

Septimus Smith is a WW1 veteran, suffering from what was then called shell-shock, what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The second story thread of Mrs. Dalloway looks at the horror of trench warfare in WWI, as told through Septimus’ post-war experience.

Rather than describing symptoms, Virginia Woolf brings us into the young veteran’s point of view. We experience with him the disorientation and hallucinations.

Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to
save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays…
There in the trenches…he developed manliness;
he was promoted; he drew the attention, indeed the
affection of his officer, Evans by name…

When Evans was killed,
just before the Armistice. Septimus, far from
showing any emotion … congratulated himself upon
feeling very little and very reasonably.
The War had taught him. It was sublime.
He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European War,
death, had won promotion, was still under thirty and was bound to survive.
He was right there. The last shells missed him.
He watched them explode with indifference….

Now that it was all over, truce signed,
and the dead buried, he had, especially in the evening, these
sudden thunder-claps of fear.
He could not feel…

His wife was crying,
and he felt nothing;
only each time she sobbed in this profound, this silent,
this hopeless way, he descended another
step into the pit

– from Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf


Virginia Woolf had good reason to be anti-war.

She was devastated by the loss of her nephew Julian in the Spanish Civil War.2
She was very critical of her husband Leonard when he enlisted in the Home Guard at the beginning of WWII.3
Then in September 1940, their home was bombed and destroyed in the London Blitz.4

There seems to be some controversy about Virginia Woolf’s overall pacifism.2
But as I read Mrs Dalloway, it seems clear that she was very, very opposed to and saddened by the lasting damage of World War I.


“Half Cup More”

Virginia and her sister Vanessa’s mother died when they were in their early teens. The sisters remained very close into adulthood.

Virginia and Vanessa playing cricket 5
from The Paris Review

Vanessa became a painter; Virginia became a writer. Both married men who were interested in the arts.

From 1905 throughout the 1920s, these two couples were the center of a loose-knit group of London artists, which became known as the Bloomsbury Set.

Others in the Bloomsbury Set included:

** E M Forster, a novelist who wrote A Room with a View
and A Passage to India.

** Lytton Strachey, who wrote biographies of
Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria.

** John Maynard Keynes, whose Keynesian economics theory
changed government policies.

** Roger Fry, a post-impressionist painter, who made
portraits of both Vanessa and Virginia…

Vanessa Bell
by Roger Fry
Virginia Woolf
by Roger Fry


Take-Away Box

And everywhere,
though it was still so early,
there was a beating, a stirring
of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats…
The whirling young men, and laughing girls
in their
transparent muslins who, even now, after dancing all night, were
taking their absurd woolly dogs for a run;
and even now, at this hour, discreet old dowagers were
shooting out in their motor cars on errands of mystery;
and the shopkeepers were fidgeting in their windows…
She too, loving it as she did with an
absurd and faithful passion; she, too, was going
that very night to kindle and illuminate;
to give her party.

– from Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…


notes & footnotes

It was my father-in-law Manny who gave me a copy of
Jeanette Winterson’s Art [Objects]: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery.
It’s an outstanding book by an insightful, brilliant writer.
I found I had to read it very slowly.
It engenders so many ideas in so many directions
that I kept having to put it down to think awhile.

And I am grateful to my earliest arts & culture mentor,
my sister Patricia, who first
gave me a copy of A Room of One’s Own.

“beauty, simplicity and peace”: Faithful Pacifism,
Activist Writing, and The Years (2015)
by Charles Andrews
Whitworth University, Spokane, Washington

Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life (1984) by Lyndall Gordan.

Sites of British Modernism, a website by Hannah Halstead


The Other Room
by Vanessa Bell
from the Estate of Vanessa Bell

Like the young Jane Austen,
the young Virginia Woolf was very good at cricket.
“By the time she was ten, her family was
calling her
‘the demon bowler’.
Her older brother Toby said she could outplay
his friends at prep school.
– from the Virginia Woolf documentary
by Peter Hort
Academy Media, 1995, Skan Productions

Mrs Woolf is dead. It is broadcast with the war news
on the evening of April 21…. I don’t want to believe it.
I am unexpectedly angry at her for dying.
And I keep confusing her death with the war dead.

She died during the war… not from the war.
But what can be separated out any more?
It’s all the war.

from The Lost Garden (2002)
a novel by
Helen Humphreys


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© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

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