One of the more notable occasions in the final year of working for the Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility was co-ordinating a breakfast press in ‘Church House’ with Peter Herbert, current Chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, about the then recent murder of Stephen Lawrence. Both his parents, Doreen and Neville, were in attendance. After the conference which was extremely well attended (as one might imagine!) ‘refreshments’ were served. Eventually, I escaped the press and middle-class ‘concerned’ and found myself talking to an African-Caribbean organist from Bloomsbury. Obviously, we talked about the tragedy that had brought us together but then started chatting about music (Dvorak and Delius) and eventually about the legacy of the Bloomsbury Group. It was a strange morning!
Virginia Woolf was a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group. In 1972, a few years after being introduced to the Group’s ideas and activities by my school friend Tim Foster, I eventually got around to reading several of Woolf’s novels as well as Quentin Bell’s two-volume biography. While
may not be as well-known as, say,
To the Lighthouse
A Room of One's Own
, it is most certainly her most experimental novel in terms of its unusual structure and poetic ambitions. Essentially the novel consists of the soliloquies of its six characters and a seventh character who never speaks in his own voice. More specifically, the soliloquies that span the characters' lives “are broken up by nine brief third-person interludes detailing a coastal scene at varying stages in a day from sunrise to sunset”.
Wikipedia usefully notes:
“The difficulty of assigning genre to this novel is complicated by the fact that
blurs distinctions between prose and poetry, allowing the novel to flow between six not dissimilar interior monologues. The book similarly breaks down boundaries between people, and Woolf herself wrote in her Diary that the six were not meant to be separate “characters” at all, but rather facets of consciousness illuminating a sense of continuity.”
According to Maria Popova, “Attention, after all, is the handmaiden of consciousness, and consciousness the central fact and the central mystery of our creaturely experience. From the days of Plato’s cave to the birth of neuroscience, we have endeavoured to fathom its nature. But it is a mystery that only seems to deepen with each increment of approach. She invokes William James who in his landmark 1902 treatise on spirituality wrote, “Our normal waking consciousness but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
It may be coincidental that
was written almost half-way between the publication of James’s
The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
in 1902 and Aldous Huxley’s
The Doors of Perception
in 1954. However, its tacit acknowledgment of the unbounded, endlessly facetted nature of consciousness suggests a possible link. This ‘playpoem’ (as Woolf herself described it) is nonetheless as far away from a philosophical treatise as you can imagine. The language sings and mesmerises continuously. Indeed, I can still recall several of its lines nearly fifty years after first reading the work (‘My Father is a banker in Brisbane...’).
Sometimes readers and critics can get it right. This indeed is one of the greatest novels in the English language. Who else could have written these words?
“I want someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit and all its anguish, after its listening, and its waitings, and its suspicions. After quarrelling and reconciliation I need privacy - to be alone with you, to set this hubbub in order. For I am as neat as a cat in my habits.”
“There is, then, a world immune from change. But I am not composed enough, standing on tiptoe on the verge of fire, still scorched by the hot breath, afraid of the door opening and the leap of the tiger, to make even one sentence. What I say is perpetually contradicted. Each time the door opens I am interrupted. I am not yet twenty-one. I am to be broken. I am to be derided all my life. I am to be cast up and down among these men and women, with their twitching faces, with their lying tongues, like a cork on a rough sea. Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room.”
BOOK OF THE MONTH ARCHIVE