We dive deep into the oeuvre of one of the world’s most famous writers to learn about her best lesser-known works
There’s more to Virginia Woolf than lines like “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” and “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. That’s not to say, of course, that you shouldn’t read Mrs Dalloway or A Room of One’s Own – you absolutely should. Mrs Dalloway is as fresh and engaging as the summer morning that the eponymous character steps out into, and A Room of One’s Own offers up guiding principles for feminism that still ring true today. But as a new exhibition opens at the Tate St Ives featuring artists inspired by Woolf’s writing, it’s also worth looking at the work that goes beyond the obvious. Woolf was first published in 1915, at the age of 33; between then and her death in 1941, over 26 years, she wrote nine full-length novels, five collections of short fiction (three published posthumously), and over 90 essays, on subjects including Shakespeare, the colour pink, and the cinema. She wrote biography, translated Dostoevsky, and produced volumes and volumes of letters. To help guide you through her oeuvre, we’ve selected the deep cuts of her bibliography.
THE VOYAGE OUT
Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in March 1915, although Hermione Lee, Woolf’s best biographer, believes she may have begun work on it as early as 1906. It tells the story of a young woman, Rachel Vinrace, who embarks on a voyage to South America on her father’s ship. We have our first introduction to Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, and Rachel considers the options for womanhood that are presented to her. Rachel knows very little about anything other than music – “there was no subject in the world which she knew accurately… All the energies that might have gone into languages, science or literature, that might have made her friends, or shown her the world, poured straight into music.”
And as the novel progresses, she rejects the options that are laid before her of becoming a wife, an accessory to a man’s energetic occupations, in the first exploration of feminist themes which would recur throughout Woolf’s writing.
THE COMMON READER I & II
As well as writing some of the 20th century's most influential novels, Woolf was also a brilliant reader of others and essayist. She published several collections of non-fiction, including The Common Reader I in 1925, and The Common Reader II in 1932. In The Common Reader, Woolf mostly tackles literary topics, with essays covering Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, and Mary Wollstonecraft (the author of the ur-feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman). In the essays, Woolf is bitingly funny, writing in the essay “Jack Mytton” that her titular character "had neither beauty of countenance nor grace of manner, yet he bore himself, for all his violence of body and mind, with an air of natural breeding." She tackles the demands of contemporary publishing – she ran, with her husband, the Hogarth Press, which now operates as a Penguin Random House imprint. She also keenly applies a modernist historical reading to her subjects. Some of the greatest joys of these essays come from reading about subjects you don't know anything about. I don't know the first thing about Beau Brummell, but when Woolf writes that he "floated buoyantly and gaily and without apparent effort to the top of whatever society he found himself among," and I picture him as a 19th-century Derek Blasberg, I feel like I've reached a perfectly clear understanding of this person through the strength of Woolf's writing.
FLUSH: A BIOGRAPHY
There’s no getting around this: Flush is not just a book about a cocker spaniel, it’s a book written from the perspective of a cocker spaniel – think “Grandpa”, the High Maintenance episode focused around a dog and his love for his walker. Flush belongs to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the poet and feminist, and Woolf uses the spaniel’s perspective to explore Barrett Browning’s love affairs, illness, and chafing at the restrictive nature of English society. Woolf was a little embarrassed by the immediate success of Flush, which sold 19,000 copies in the first six months and became her most popular book so far; now, it lingers in the doldrums of her bibliography and is rarely read or taught. When Flush and Elizabeth travel together to Italy, the dog rejoices in the “raucous smells, crimson smells” of goats and pasta, and his owner downs her wine and breaks “another orange from the branch”. The two are brought together by the charm of these sensual experiences, echoing the delight of spending a few hours on this book.
Woolf’s letters have been published in every imaginable combination: in six exhaustive volumes covering 1888 to 1941; selected writings to her one-time lover Vita Sackville-West; letters to Lytton Strachey, whose proposal she turned down in 1909. You can even buy her illustrated letters. She’s said to have written up to six letters a day, so reading the complete version would be the work of years, but it’s certainly worth dipping into the Selected Letters, first published in 1990. In them, we get glimpses of her longing for Sackville-West, to whom she writes “I have been dull; I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you”, as well as her acerbic observations on other writers, and quite a lot about the weather, proving that the writings of a genius of 20th-century modernism have more in common with your family Whatsapp group than you might have realised.
Woolf’s last novel to be published in her lifetime, The Years, had a tortured genesis. In January 1931, she gave a lecture to the National Society for Women’s Service and thought about turning it into a book-length essay on women’s economic and social life. She had recently published A Room of One’s Own in book form and thought this lecture would make a good companion piece. She initially thought of calling it “Men are like that” but dismissed it as “too patently feminist”, although the final work is among her most feminist writing. The lecture became a series of six ‘novel-essays’, combining essays with fictional passages that explored the same themes, before Woolf transformed the novel extracts into a fully-fledged book. The Years tracks the Pargiter family from 1880 to the early 1930s, covering a day in the lives of its characters. The non-fiction starting point of covering women’s work and social situations is threaded through the concerns of the female characters, who struggle to find their place in a world that is rapidly changing.
ON BEING ILL
It sounds almost parodic to recommend a Woolf essay on illness, but On Being Ill deserves to be considered as one of her classic texts. She argues that illness should be considered a subject for great literature, much as we are accustomed to think of love or death, and she makes this argument in a style that feels at once familiar and daring. The first sentence is over 200 words long, and Woolf continues in almost mock-grand style: “it is not only a new language that we need (to describe illness), primitive, subtle, sensual, obscene, but a new hierarchy of the passions.” Woolf suffered from depression and ill-health her whole life, starting with the death of her mother when she was just 13. She had several nervous collapses and was hospitalised more than once. While her father and his doctors argued that reading and writing were detrimental to her health, it was Vita Sackville-West who helped her realise that reading and writing her own work actually calmed her nerves, and gave her the impetus to push back against her diagnosis. In On Being Ill, we are granted insight into the essential solitude of illness, of Woolf’s attempts to accept her health. While the well are “the army of the upright [marching] to battle”, the ill are granted the vision of our own fallibility. “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, nature is at no pains to conceal – that she in the end will conquer.” As Woolf attempts to write through illness, she lights the way for the others who struggle.