Woolf, however, was nothing if not self-aware, painfully and sometimes even debilitatingly so. She could be hard on others, but she worried over almost everything it was possible to worry over in her own character. She knew she was a snob; she admitted she was a snob. She did not consider it one of her worst or most interesting failings.
Late in her life she did, in fact, deliver a humorous lecture on the subject, “Am I a Snob?” to the Memoir Club, in which she said:
Witness this letter. Why is it always on top of all my letters? Because it has a coronet — if I get a letter stamped with a coronet that letter miraculously floats on top. I often ask — why? I know perfectly well that none of my friends will ever be, or ever has been impressed by anything I do to impress them. Yet I do it — here is the letter — on top. This shows, like a rash or a spot, that I have the disease … I want coronets; but they must be old coronets; coronets that carry land with them and country houses; coronets that breed simplicity, eccentricity, ease.
And so, there she stands.
Woolf’s work is also criticized for a certain tea-table delicacy, for veering away from all matters concerning the flesh, even though it was written during a period when sex was considered, for the first time in centuries, a permissible subject. While Woolf was fully aware of the power of sexuality, she had little interest in going into its particulars.
“The Voyage Out” does contain an implied rape, in the form of a kiss forced on Rachel by Richard Dalloway, but Woolf would never again venture even that far into the physically violent possibilities between women and men. She would later depict a kiss, one with very different consequences, in “Mrs. Dalloway,” when Sally Seton surprises the young Clarissa by kissing her, suddenly and unexpectedly, only once, while they are briefly separated from the incessant company of men. These are the two major sexual episodes in Woolf’s entire body of work, and each involves one of the Dalloways, those emblems of all that Woolf found terrible and compelling in English society. Richard assaults Rachel, and Clarissa, in the later book, is assaulted, more kindly, by Sally. Interestingly, it is Clarissa who is more undone by the experience of being kissed.
Woolf did appreciate the complexity of sex — its risks and marvels, its capacity to transform lives. Her characters’ sexuality is always highly idiosyncratic and deeply personal; she understood, more fully than many authors who were far more explicit on the subject, that everyone possesses a sexual geography as particular to him or her as a fingerprint. Richard Dalloway’s kiss excites Rachel even as it humiliates and terrifies her, and Sally Seton’s kiss implies for Clarissa in “Mrs. Dalloway” a fleeting promise, lost almost as soon as found, that runs to depths far greater than those implied by questions of hetero- vs. homosexuality.
Since “The Voyage Out” appeared, 85 years prior to this writing, Woolf’s reputation has risen and fallen and risen again. While she lived she became a bestselling author. The money she earned from the surprising success of her 1937 novel, “The Years,” enabled her to buy the fur coat into the pocket of which she would, four years later, put a stone to drown herself. Her picture appeared in Vogue in 1926, and her likeness can still be seen in a mosaic on the floor of the foyer of the National Gallery in London, holding a pen and wearing a toga amid a gathering of gods, goddesses and muses.
After her death in 1941 she fell out of fashion, until her work was taken up by feminist scholars in the 1960s. She quickly became, in the popular imagination, at least as much a personality as she was an artist. For those who had read her, a cottage industry of sorts grew up, composed mainly of essays and books that claimed that her work, her character, her genius and her suicide could only be understood in light of her lesbianism, her enslavement to Leonard, her mental disorder, her oppression as a woman and/or the fact that she had survived incest.
Few figures have inspired such possessiveness, such rampant subjectivity. Those of us who care for her have always tended to do so ferociously. Monk’s House, her country house, which is open to the public six months of the year, is usually full of people, many of them as hushed and attentive as if visiting a shrine. If one walks from Monk’s House to the River Ouse, where Woolf drowned herself, one usually passes others either coming or going.
Woolf’s reputation as an artist is somewhat difficult to parse from the popular romance that has grown up out of her life and death. In addition to the aforementioned quarrels about her focus on the upper classes and her reticence in matters of sex, she is widely known as a “difficult” writer; and while that may be true, the word “difficult” is often applied in a dismissive tone that differs noticeably from the tone the same word takes on when applied to a writer like Joyce. There is often a sense, even among serious readers, that Joyce is bracingly difficult and Woolf merely irritatingly difficult.
As someone who has written about Woolf, I find myself hearing from a number of people, generally in tones of pride or annoyance, that they simply can’t read her. We are all, of course, entitled to our disinclinations, but I can’t help wondering if these people would proclaim with the same righteous indignation their inability to read authors like Joyce, Kafka or Faulkner. I tend to feel that an inability to read Woolf should be presented as a problem with the reader, not the writer, though that opinion is by no means universal.
Some of the barriers set up against Woolf’s full standing as a major artist arise not from her innovation or her difficulty, it seems, but from the fact that she was innovative, difficult and a woman — a woman whose narratives tended to arise out of domestic situations, who insisted that domestic situations were at least as important to those who inhabited them as foreign wars and the deaths of kings. Clearly the battle Woolf took up has not yet been won, at least not at the beginning of the 21st century. Although she detested criticism I suspect she would not mind knowing that she remains a figure of controversy — better that than hallowed and forgotten. Unlike many venerated authors, she is still read and discussed.
Great art contains not only its own questions but its own answers, and one of its more satisfying aspects is its way of outliving its detractors, of marching into time with all its beauties, excesses, subtleties, insights and deficiencies in full view. Battles lost or battles won, Woolf’s work, from “The Voyage Out,” which launched her, to “Between the Acts,” which helped to kill her, is very much alive. Generations of readers come and go, fashions change, but we have Woolf’s books, and will always have them. We have a passage like this, from “The Voyage Out”:
The preliminary discomforts and harshnesses, which generally make the first days of a sea voyage so cheerless and trying to the temper, being somehow lived through, the succeeding days passed pleasantly enough. October was well advanced, but steadily burning with a warmth that made the early months of the summer appear very young and capricious. Great tracts of the earth lay now beneath an autumn sun, and the whole of England, from the bald moors to the Cornish rocks, was lit up from dawn to sunset, and showed in stretches of yellow, green, and purple. Under that illumination even the roofs of the great towns glittered. In thousands of small gardens, millions of dark-red flowers were blooming, until the old ladies who had tended them so carefully came down the paths with their scissors, snipped through their juicy stalks, and laid them upon cold stone ledges in the village church. Innumerable parties of picnickers coming home at sunset cried, “Was there ever such a day as this?” “It’s you,” the young men whispered; “Oh, it’s you,” the young women replied. All old people and many sick people were drawn, were it only for a foot or two, into the open air, and prognosticated pleasant things about the course of the world. As for the confidences and expressions of love that were heard not only in cornfields but in lamplit rooms, where the windows opened on the garden, and men with cigars kissed women with gray hairs, they were not to be counted. Some said that the sky was an emblem of the life they had had; others that it was the promise of the life to come. Long-tailed birds clattered and screamed, and crossed from wood to wood, with golden eyes in their plumage.
Copyright ) 2000 by Michael Cunningham. Excerpted from his introduction to “The Voyage Out” by Virginia Woolf, newly released this month by the Modern Library. All rights reserved.