The caustic Empress lifts the curtain on the writer’s dilemma
In Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown, and in much of Woolf’s work, the writer is phantomic. Will O’Wisps, spectres and whispers, offspring of the occult appear through initial pages, and by its conclusion, one might consider the role of a writer interchangeable with a medium.
Virginia Woolf is known just as intimately as a critic, a commentator, a profligatory dosage of reality in a sea of Victorian, (and therefore restrained) sensibility as she is a ‘writer.’ The term itself has been through enough discussion and change that there is little this article can elucidate - unlike the scientist, who was once a natural philosopher, the role of the writer, the musician, the vessel by which the muses flow (these muses are best known as classics; history, poetry, comedy, tragedy, music, dancing, astronomy) is attested to in similar manner throughout history. While the concept of a hardback book is relatively recent, the role of the literate artist is as old as literacy itself. And, thus, Woolf asks the same question that has remained footfalls behind writers since time immemorial: what ought the writer?
The history of words, and their relationship to one another, can sometimes be a beleaguering topic. There is as much a science - linguistics and phenology, perhaps - to the subject as there is an art. Woolf was one of many in speculating on the best balance between the two.
One might roll their eyes at the thought of doting through whether ‘hello’ is a modern term, or whether ‘goodbye’ is truly wishing God to be with ye, when the usage of words today is so far removed from their etymological genesis. But for Woolf, these troubles were as integral to the craft of a writer as it would be for a carpenter to know the story of each tree felled for their craft. The relationship between words, and the reasons why beseech, despite being a Saxon word, is viewed as more sophisticated as appeal, an Anglo-French word, while implore, of a similar origin, will always be more formal than its Saxon equivalent of ask, are all of importance - but never great focus - to Woolf.
These questions are, by definition, as weightless as is the prose, and the effort put into treating every word as their own story is obscured, but never lost. These struggles of literature are no more obviously obscured than in Woolf’s deep, gentle, raucous work; like pixies, to follow her phantomic understanding, that wait around each corner, darting from the corner of one’s eye, and only appearing just as much to warrant a want to see them return again.
Indeed, the writer lived in times of unparalleled journalistic fervour, where readership reached levels never-before-seen, and this was very much a pressing concern of her essays. There was never, in English history, a better time to be a writer - especially a women writer, as her upper-class background allowed her the ‘room and money’ needed for any woman to write fiction. But for someone eager to express the feminine in a world that had imprisoned it, one would hesitate to call her an optimist. She refused to break down all the walls that existed in the way of the writer. She appreciated walls as much as any polemic could since, after all, one needs walls to make rooms. And, in the case of you, dear reader, one of her strongest pieces of advice: never publish anything until you are thirty.
Woolf’s relationship with her mother, who died when she was only thirteen, impacted her writing and outlook on life. The relationship with parent and child is often thought as the philosophical genesis of a person’s vitality, and as she stated, Virginia viewed the relationship between daughter and mother especially crucial.
She was not without kind terms for her father, either; Woolf openly stated her connection, desiccation, hatred, bemusement and fear of him. She did, in fact, remark of her likeness to him more than her dear mother.
Familial relationships were crucial in her time, especially for an underestimated woman, and they continue to be crucial for even the most privileged writers. When she talks of the joys of youth, they come in direct confrontation with the struggle of what is written - notably the malaise of publishing, as she would later set up her own agency and remain fiercely critical of the atmosphere of her contemporaries. Her husband and life-long companion, Leonard Woolf, supported her in these writerly endeavours. Virginia may have had a room of her own, but she was not an island.
The role of Author as Parent is one that has stricken the heart of literature itself - since the Renaissance, the motions and sinews of the writer’s heart have been collected, tracked and exploited. From Machiavelli to Hilary Mantel, the lives of those who create the fiction the world enjoys so deeply has an influence on one’s understanding of the work itself. Auteur theory is more than a century old, and its relationship with film has been equally pervasive; the world of social media has only pried the door open permanently, and the life of the author has become as public as the story itself. Some critics call it distraction, while others point at these so-called para-socialites as the omens of a greater desperation of connection. Whether there is truth buried here, the role of the writer has never been easier nor more claustrophobic from these technological advances. Woolf may not have survived it.
There is no remedy or crime here, however much it may draw attention from words or works; nobody reads literature for the words themselves. One reads for the links between them and the people that inhabit that tissued space. To cauterise our obsession with faces and the people that wear them is to destroy art itself. And even if one could, who would want to? Craft and author are one and the same, but one must bring the other to life, and this Frankenstine order is not for the young or the old - only, as Woolf would agree, the brave and foolhardy.
And none can doubt the bravery of Virginia Woolf, and her unblinking devotion to the emancipation of women and the written word. But brave women have preceded her and continue her struggle; one Mary Shelley, only in the twilight of her teenage years, did rebel from that exact notion expressed by Woolf in A Letter to a Young Poet. The very first science-fiction novel, Frankenstein, was penned by a nineteen-year-old and, even though the average woman may not have had the wealth or environment that Woolf or Shelley did, should these incredible women be born today, with all the wonders of the world a mere thought away, the libraries would seem small and empty.
Author as Parent may be a careful way to trust craft, as it comes from the same fingers, perhaps only with more wrinkles, but it is a dreadful way to ascertain motive. After all, the child must learn of the parent’s own world before reaching adulthood; the reader must learn of the Author’s own naivety before reaching literary independence. This is not an act of study; it is an act of responsibility.
The question of authorial intent has always plagued the reader and writer alike. Should a story be held hostage to its creator’s original intent, or does the lack of knowledge give us some insight into our own cravings as individual readers? If a writer were to lie profusely, and despite all their appearances, give measure to the untruth of what the story truly represent, would an impassioned reader arguing the case of the obvious truth of the author’s intent be any less legitimate, despite the text’s own merit?
Is the merit only enough, as our natural obsession with people and faces brings many to understand Woolf’s writing as one way or another, volatile or caring, piercing or forgiving. If the devil belongs anywhere, is hidden behind the details - if Heaven is anywhere else, it is in the mind of the reader who sifts through the hellish prose to find some beacon of light that makes them laugh, smile and cry. The author may be dead, but long live these authors - the ones never afraid to lie.
But if Woolf’s own character can not possibly inform one’s ability to domesticate the writer’s struggle, how could her words? It may even seem the struggle is eternal, unconquerable, Sisyphean. Struggle surely is - without it, victory would be meaningless - but the shades of writerly frustration are clear: how one creates work regularly, affectionately, and discerns what makes others able to do the same.
Thus, Woolf’s Letter to a Young Poet can be helpful, as it decries the beliefs that grew strong in Victorian times; that one must write to be read, and that reading must be done by the public. It may seem a moot point, no? What other goal could a writer hope to achieve than writing for readers? One can look at the athlete, the woodworker, the nurse to find comparisons; the runner continues her sprint in the dark, even if the competition has no place in her mind; the woodworker buffs and sands wood even when the trees are plenty and orders empty; the nurse tends to his family, and himself, in times of sickness. The role of the writer is not just to deliver written work, as if a stork could deliver a baby; she is to write for herself, and write well, should the world end tomorrow and it be the last thing ever written.
And now, Woolf’s terms seem more agreeable. Reading A Letter to a Young Poet, in the essay’s full context, gives us light - it is a plea to the affections of the young writer, who is full of folly and heart.
Despite the red-kneed aspirants’ plea, Woolf continues to remain dead and will not give us any more advice. In fact, her advice is as incandescent as her stories; for all of her strengths, and her mental struggles, it was the role of the writer that seemed to be the most problematic - perhaps simply because it was easiest to write about. But what did she have to say about those lonely nights of overwhelming frustration, of endless sentences and pages did not turn? She referred to it as ‘throwing bricks over a wall,’ but the result of fiction was nonetheless spectacular. Is it not true that this standard of fiction made the frustration worth? Woolf may not have thought so:
Woolf’s work continues to promulgate and, amongst women and men, children and not-children, the indescribable masses of marketable literature and the pin-prick singularity of you, dear reader, proselytise - perhaps that was the greatest struggle of the writer; to convince themselves as much as they can convince others. The problem of publishing is the problem of reality when it meets the rushing wind of creation. The problem of writer will never be what they determine themselves to be; their age, sex, gender, faith, colour, and recipient of heart pale in comparison to the woodworkers’ craft of writing, and writing well. If there was one cardinal sin that 19:14 laments, it would be the thought, the rising tension, the imposter’s hanging rope, that says that one ought not to write.
One ought to do exactly what keeps them awake at night - what makes one dance. And while there will always be the vicissitudes of writing, and one might wish advice would be its own currency, it is hard to forget the phantom from Kensington that turned drops of ink to rivers that, on a foggy night, you might see run all the way to the Ouse.
It seems that Woolf believed that the unyielding march of modernity, and the finances of writing well, can promise to make the writer immortal and her struggle worth; it was Danny Heitman with the NEH who said that Woolf ‘does with words what Jimi Hendrix does with the guitar.’ So to you, Virginia, on whom the whims of life seemed so grand, and whose advice could never be insincere - what better voice is there to ignore?