Proust, Virginina Woolf, and the dangers of loving a book too much.

The Cork-Lined Room

by Dennis Abrams

I’ve been thinking back to one of my first posts, listing the ten reasons why people should join in the reading of reading Proust.  In it I quoted Virginia Woolf’s famous line, “My great adventure is really Proust.  Well — what remains to be written after that?”   In reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life,” I read about the danger that such feelings had for Woolf.

“Reading Proust nearly silenced Virginia Woolf.  She loved his novel, but loved it rather too much.  There wasn’t enough wrong with it, a crushing recognition when one follows Walter Benjamin in his assessment of why people become writers: because they are unable to find a book already written which they are completely happy with.  And the difficulty for Virginia was, for a time at least, she thought she had found one.

Virginia Woolf first mentioned Proust in…

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Virginia Woolf: Cottage Loaf

Paper and Salt

Virginia Woolf - Cottage Loaf

Every time I get discouraged by writing, I engage in a bit of schadenfreude, and soothe myself with the frustrations of others. “I write two pages of arrant nonsense after straining … Then I trust to some inspiration on re-reading.” That’s Virginia Woolf while writing The Wavesbut I’m pretty sure I said the same thing, more or less, while writing this post.

This constant self-effacement is a theme that runs through Woolf’s letters. Her talents didn’t really lie in the library, she would tell you. They were in the kitchen. “I have only one passion in life — cooking,” Woolf wrote to her friend (and occasional lover) Vita Sackville-West. “I have just bought a superb oil stove. I can cook anything … I assure you it is better than writing these more than idiotic books.”

Where Woolf hesitated to praise her own writing, she wasn’t nearly so shy about…

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Virginia Woolf’s Christmas diaries

Blogging Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s diary entries from around Christmas bring into sharp relief the feelings that the festive season stirs. Her pieces are coloured by the unpredictable shifts of British winter weather, express the pull between social event and solitude, and are self-reflective in their review of the past.

The following entries span the twenty-year period from 1920-40 and express the layered and complex connotations that our annual traditions hold.

woolf-xmas “A Virginia Woolf Christmas – Monks House Welcome Home” design by Amanda White

19 December 1920, Hogarth House

In 1920, Woolf’s entry anticipates her New Year’s return to Rodmell and the comfort and routine this will bring. She imagines the “soft, grey walk” she will take in the dappled cool winter light on the greyed heather and chalky mud of the Sussex Downs. Woolf weaves this expectation for the New Year with the immediacy of Christmas at the end of the…

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Four Kinds of Love; Eros, Agape, Phileo & Storge

Eros to Agape

The Greeks had four words to describe what we call love, Eros, (romantic love), Phileo, (enjoyment, fondness, friendship), Storge (family loyalty) and Agape (unconditional love with stick-ability). I like to think of them broadly as;

  1. Eros-A love felt particularly within the body (trembling excitement, elation, joy), coloured and underpinned by deep and beautiful procreative urges. C.S. Lewis distinguishes Eros from natural sexual urges and lusts, because Eros is a state of the heart and while it is intimately related to sex, sex can exist, and often does exist, without Eros enlivening it. It leads to children, family, joy and laughter. It is good and right, but it is usually not enough to sustain a relationship long term. Eros is an exulted and beautifully idealistic love, usually between a man and woman, but can also be “platonic” and extend to deeply intimate friendships. Socrates defined Eros as also working with…

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‘With voice and memory and creative vigour’: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879)

Pre-Raphaelite Reflections

Henry Herschel Hay Cameron (later The Cameron Studio), 'Julia Margaret Cameron', 1873. Albumen print, 24.4 x 20.3 cm. Source: National Portrait Gallery. Henry Herschel Hay Cameron (later The Cameron Studio), Julia Margaret Cameron, 1873. Albumen print, 24.4 x 20.3 cm. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Julia Margaret Cameron, the pioneer Victorian photographer whose work has rightly been praised by scholars and the public alike. Indeed, the V&A will honour the occasion with a large exhibition of 100 of her photographs this November, while Will Gompertz recently made a case for her as the face of the new £20 note. Previous shows include the 2003 retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, her inclusion in The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting in 2010, and a display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013. I forget how or when I discovered her photographs but they’ve been a passion of mine for several years, making her my favourite photographer. It’s appropriate, then, to write this for the 11th June, on which day in 1815…

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Virginia Woolf and the Victorian Art World

Pre-Raphaelite Reflections

When I recently visited the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, I was delighted to discover several gorgeous photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron displayed in the first room. Here was a connection between one of my favourite writers and my favourite photographer; I had previously been aware of Woolf’s familial ties to Cameron, but seeing the latter’s beautiful photographic portraits of Victorian cultural greats displayed alongside images of the former really brought it home. Woolf is often described as boldly departing from Victorian traditions, a leading light of literary Modernism — this is certainly true of her writing, with works such as To the Lighthouse (1927), Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Jacob’s Room (1922; my personal favourite) taking the English novel in far more experimental directions. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Julia Cameron in the NPG exhibition got me thinking about Woolf’s ancestry and artistic background.

Julia Margaret Cameron, 'Julia Prinsep Duckworth (later Julia Stephen)', April 1867. Julia Stephen was Virginia Woolf's mother. Source. Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘Julia Prinsep Duckworth (later Julia Stephen)’, April…

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Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

Book Snob

Virginia Woolf’s novels have always seemed waif-like to me; slight, ethereal wisps of poetic prose that can be read in a single sitting. Night and Day, her second novel, couldn’t be more different to this impression; it has far more resemblance to the doorstop length sagas of her father’s contemporaries than to her later works that so epitomise the modernism of the 1920s and 1930s. It took me a long time to read; partly due to the sheer amount of words, but also because I was enjoying it so much that I wanted to remain immersed in it for as long as possible. It is an intriguing mix of 19th and 20th century, of classic and modern, of past influences and forward thinking innovation. Despite its seeming distance from her later novels, it is still unmistakeably Woolf. Only she could write the magnificently atmospheric scenes of misty twilight walks…

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