In between edits I have reacquainted myself with Virginia Woolf. It’s been a while since I browsed any of her books. She had been in the upper pantheon some years ago but I have not peered in her works for ages. This current examination comes about from reviewing and how we read other’s works.

As readers, we often take to books that somehow, mysteriously, accord with our own ideas and personalities. It is too easy to say emotions alone, as if it is just one factor, though that is often singled out as the most critical. The interconnection between thought and feeling is what occurs when reading. It is this dimension with Woolf that is most interesting.

In 1922 she paid the astronomical sum of £4.00 (about £170.00 in today’s money) to have a copy of the most significant book of the year: Ulysses. Who would pay that money for such a book now? Anyway, T.S. Eliot praised it and the author. A few years earlier she had rejected it for publication by her Hogarth Press on the basis of four chapters and its immoral and indecent content. Passing references to micturition had been beyond the pale.

Years later with the complete book Woolf’s first reading was ambiguous: a blend of boredom through which she saw moments of brilliance but did not share the same intensity of emotion that Eliot did. She resorted to the lowest form of criticism: ad hominem attacks and that perennial English from of scorn: ridicule the author’s class and education. Initially Woolf believed Joyce to be young and it came as a surprise to her that he was just eight days younger than she was.

Over the summer of 1922 she finished the book and her reaction modified; her mind was open to the form and the reasons underlying in what she read. She was constrained in her reactions because while she rejected the conventional novel of her time, the shock of Ulysses in form and content: a book that uttered words that had never dared be printed in books respectable ladies read, was disturbing.

As she re-assessed the book Woolf re-assessed herself, and the dialogue was like an uncomfortable friendship. There were some things that were very likable but occasionally other characteristics became apparent that were unpleasant. It was not easy for Woolf to take the rough with the smooth. Other critics were vociferous in their dismissal of this book just as they had been when Fry exhibited contemporary French painting in 1910. The normal reflex of English snobs is to denigrate what they cannot comprehend.

The extraordinary result of Woolf’s reading of Ulysses is that it changed her fundamentally. Her books in the ‘20s are influenced by several techniques in Ulysses. It’s as if she found a personal – an emotional – architecture in which to write. This was the form she would take and it would stand clearly opposite to the material ‘first class carriage’ of the typical novel.

And then, on the other hand, Woolf had a haughty, perspicacious, mind. She could cut others down to size and be caustic. This side of her remained uncertain, too aware of the differences between Joyce’s view of things and hers: their differences in gender, appetites (sex for the most part), Dublin versus London etc. This part of Woolf’s response to the novel remained aloof, steely, and so, when he finished Ulysses, finally, the sigh is nearly audible. Her martyrdom, she said, was over and she would sell the book for £4.10. History does not record if she succeeded.

Guy Cranswick
22nd October 2012