Reading Virginia Woolf

Reading Virginia Woolf

Reading Virginia Woolf

Reading Virginia Woolf

Excerpt

Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!

If a single theme runs through these essays, it is that of absence, the theme of so much modernist writing. As Woolf herself recognised, but never formulated to her own satisfaction, gaps and absences are what bring the very different processes of reading and writing together, for the writer works by filling the gaps with her imagination, and so, if rather differently, does the reader. Jane Austen, Woolf observed, 'stimulates us to supply what is not there' (Essays iv, 149). Readers coordinate the signs supplied by the text in order to 'make a whole' (in Woolf's phrase), in the process of assimilating the reading to their own inner world.

For Woolf, the concept of absence brought together a series of linked ideas. In emotional terms, it resulted from the experience of loss, and in particular the series of losses she had endured as an adolescent and a young woman – her half-sister Stella in 1897, her father in 1904, her favourite brother Thoby in 1906, and, most devastating of all, that of her mother when she was only thirteen, in 1895. Julia Duckworth Stephen was eventually memorialised as Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, where she unconsciously foresees her own absence as she reads Shakespeare's sonnet 98, 'From you have I been absent in the spring' (TTL, 131). Woolf published To the Lighthouse on 5 May 1927, the anniversary of the day her mother died, thirty-two years before. The gap that severs the present from the past, yet also bridges the gap between the young Virginia's early losses, and those of so many others during the Great War, is represented in the novel as the ten years of 'Time Passes', one of her most far-reaching experiments,

Loss and absence lie at the heart of Woolf's art. Her late, unfinished memoir, 'A Sketch of the Past', records how she turned to writing as a way of dealing with their pain:

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