Literary Devotional (rewind): Virginia Woolf

As part of my efforts to jump back into blogging after moving to Michigan, I will be spending the next few days catching up on my literary devotionals.  Other entries, including a review of Hearts in Atlantis are forthcoming.

British novelist and critic Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was one of the most influential writers of the modernist movement.  Along with Joyce, Faulkner and others, she revolutionized the novel with radically new narrative techniques and thematic concerns.  Woolf’s involvement in the intellectual high society of England, meanwhile, made her a major cultural figure herself.

Woolf came from a privileged London background, and largely educated herself by reading in the library of her father, a Cambridge-educated author and editor.  After Woolf’s mother’s death in 1895, she began to experience nervous breakdowns and depression, which haunted her for the rest of her life.  She wrote prolifically, however, and in 1912 married Leonard Woolf.  In 1917, the couple started a small publishing house to produce and distribute Virginia’s works and the writings of other authors.

Together, the Woolfs were active in the liberal London intellectual scene.  For decades, they met on Thursday evenings at the home of Virginia’s sister, Vanessa, in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of central London.  Guests frequently included E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachy, John Maynard Keynes, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and others.  This Bloomsbury group, asi t came to be called, discussed questions of philosophy, religion, politics, aesthetics, sexuality, and literature.

Like many wrters of the time, Woolf and the Bloomsbury group were horrified by the pointless brutality of World War I.  They grew to believe that the principles of nineteenth-century realist literature were inadequate to describe the world that confronted them after the war.  They resolved to develop an entirely new frame of reference to interpret this changed world.

Woolf led the charge herself, experimenting with stream-of-consciouness narration—depicting the uninterrupted current of a character’s thoughts—in Mrs. Dalloway (1925).  The novel’s simple plot, which follows a woman as she makes preparations for a party, is far less important than the inner workings of the characters’ psyches.  Though the narrative darts in and out of the minds of different people, only rarely do theyse characters connect on a significant level or find their thoughts on the same page.

Woolf was also fascinated by how people perceive the flow of time, from fleeting moments to sweeping decades.  The lengthy first section of her novel To The Lighthouse (1927) focuses in great detail on a single day; the far shorter second section shows the passage of many years in just a few pages.  Woolf advanced this exploration of both time and stream of consciousness in The Waves (1931), and experimental work that follows the voices of six friends from youth to old age.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale


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