Celebration number two this week, and I'm not sure why January 25th and Virginia Woolf's birthday always sticks in my mind, but it always seems like a good day to reflect on her writing and her life a little.
Perhaps it is because each year I have just emerged from that really fulfilling reading phase that is Christmas and New Year. A mid-winter solstice break to stoke the boilers for whatever is to come until the spring and it usually involves some Virginia reading.
This year was no exception with Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris twinned with yet another trip To the Lighthouse which seems to have become the book I start every new year with. In fact my Forth Bridge painting book probably, because every time I get to the end, which is usually about August, I'm ready to start at the beginning again. And for those that may not know of the Forth Bridge (in Scotland) it is one of those jokes that has entered the every day here in the UK, so huge that by the time one complete coat of paint has gone on, the place where they started needs doing again.
Firstly To the Lighthouse and thank heavens you all told me how best to read this a few years ago, when I was struggling. Let the words happen, slow down and as Alexandra Harris says of any reading The Waves...
'Several of her key breakthroughs in the book came while listening to music. Because it is written to a rhythm, Woolf's readers have to beat time. It is no good trying to go too fast: Woolf slows us dwon to the pave of her characters' acute observations of the world. They watch and perceive with a childish wonder, long after they have grown up...'
And I am always amazed at the different threads I home in on with each read. Mrs Ramsay has my full attention this time and with Alexandra Harris's words and Virginia Woolf's own echoing in my mind...
'This novel was a laying to rest of ghosts from her family past... 'I wrote the book very quickly,' she said later, 'and when it was written I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.'
She has altered her memories of her father as well: 'now he comes back sometimes but differently....'
And a fascinating premise argued by Alexandra Harris, that this was Virginia Woolf confronting her parents as an adult, not as the child and younger woman she had been when she lost them.
Mrs Ramsay's sock knitting always fascinates me too. These socks for the son of the lighthouse keeper that she keeps measuring for size against her own son's legs (I just mis-typed that as 'lighthose' and almost left it in) and the anguish of young James who is so desperate in that way only children can be, to keep alive a glimmer of hope that the weather will hold off and the trip to the lighthouse will really happen. And in comes Mr Ramsay to ...well, with apologies to sensibilities, we'd call it 'p*****g on a bonfire here and Mrs Ramsay's work of nurturing that child-like hope is unravelled by forthrightness. I can almost imagine it, might Mrs R sacrifice one of her sock needles to poke him in the eye... she's certainly upset enough.
Meanwhile Alexandra Harris's book supplied the steady bass line that I love, some complementary reading that is adding richly to the mix, and whilst we might all argue that the world surely doesn't need yet another book about Virginia Woolf I would hope that it does and will continue to get them. It surely needs one that offers an interpretation of the books and the life within a new and updated social and cultural framework every so often. It is fifteen years since Hermione Lee's edition and Alexandra Harris offers a 2011 perspective on a life that still seems endlessly facinating and interesting (well I don't tire of it) as well as an appraisal of more recent books, plays and films since then.
I'm intrigued to that The Years, despite being the best-selling of all Virginia Woolf's books on publication, is now the least read and the least studied, me included, so I might rectify that this year. But I loved reading yet again about the printing press and the painstaking process of teaching herself to set type that Virginia embarked on, and the freedom of expression it gave her ...and the fact that she adored gossip ' a precious currency to be banked' and 'wisely spent' when she met with Vanessa...
'I always keep a sort of pouch of gossip for you in my mind...'
The book itself is the thing of beauty you would expect from publishers Thames & Hudson who always win me over with paper quality and production values, (oh alright then...and the silver book ribbon) and at £14.95 full price no more expensive than a read-once hardback fiction book these days. Whilst we all know that any self-respecting bibliophile and fan of all things Woolfian like me will have to have the book regardless, we can at least hope that it adds 'something extra' in the way of beauty to the shelves, and
this one most certainly does. There is a shade of pink that features large in Vanessa Bell's work, often alongside a shade of yellow with some grey mixed in.
It's a soothing, non-irritating shade that features on this book jacket too... something very calming about it, very gentle on the eye and the mind, so I wasn't in the least surprised to find it listed as Calamine on the Farrow & Ball shade chart. I was relieved it wasn't Ointment Pink or Dead Salmon truth be told or I might not have mentioned it. And yes I have so much time to waste I get the shade chart out to try and match the colours on book jackets, but Snake River Press use it on their little Bloomsbury in Sussex book, and it works... and makes my shelves look nice...
Book vanity, there are worse sins and it matters in these days of e-book competition where I don't even really 'own', and can't actually 'see' the book I pay money for.
What would Virginia have had to say about all that...who can know ... but happy birthday anyway Mrs Woolf.